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A mind-body question

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A new book suggests the technologies of bits and of molecules - nanotechnology - will transform our mortality and mentality

Neil Spiller, cyber-utopian, sees the possibility of a 'bridge to heaven' being created by new digital and biological technologies where millennia of religions, meditation, ritual and narcotics have failed. According to him, we can transcend our current 'world of turgid greys and murky inertia' and the 'meat package of our bodies'.

In his book Digital Dreams: Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies*, Spiller explores how nanotechnology (engineering at molecular scale, creating new systems to order) may provide both prosthetic improvement for us and control over the matter we work with. Digitally, artificial intelligence (ai) will allow humans to transcend the current limits of mentality.

Using the word 'digital' in the title is an odd choice. One of Spiller's main themes is to shift thinking about the technological future away from its preoccupation with the digital to give similar weight to nanotechnology. In the short term, we may see bio-robots in the bloodstream travelling round to repair existing organs, or in the lab growing new organs. In the longer term, swarms of microscopic systems may be created to order, so matter can be assembled and disassembled at will. Matter, in a metaphorical sense, becomes virtual too through this potential for alchemical transformation from one ordered form to another.

'Dreams' is nearer the mark. The book focuses on near and far future developments in the technologies of ai and bioscience, taking them to their (il)logical conclusions, showing us the tools that could become at our disposal, inviting us to decide 'what then?' The book looks more at how the future could be made than at what it may become.

The book's design is intended to give a flavour of such other-worldliness too. Spiller turns a neat phrase among the abstract computer graphics and parallel streams of text.

For some readers the first question will be about the emperor's virtual clothes. This appears of no concern to Spiller, happy to be speculative and provocative. He treats technology as metaphor more than engineering. With the mechanical and biological development of nanotechnology in its infancy, speculation can run rife, unconstrained by counter-experience. ai is different, a serious enterprise for more then 30 years but with a credibility problem; a reputation for big promises but small deliveries. Its grand projet has been to understand mentality and as an inevitable result to create artificial intelligence greater then that of man. While this top-down projet has yet come to little, some of the bottom-up bits of the enterprise along the way are bearing fruit. ai methodologies are being used in industrial process modelling and control, in running computer networks, in playing chess, and more.

With such growing competencies comes growing autonomy. From pocket calculators which are better than us at arithmetic to software agents. These can travel around global networks seeking information on our behalf, or on behalf of other computers.

We could argue that we are still in total control - we could bin the lot tomorrow. But will we? Will development of artificial competencies really be stopped at some arbitrary level called 'as good as a human', or will it carry on beyond? And how far will we be in control of ai technologies that are developing a capacity to 'learn' (for want of a better, non-anthropomorphic term)? For example, neural network computers are taught to recognise patterns such as faces or taught to do tasks by exposure to varied examples. Broadly, the way they learn is to re-weight the connections in their networks to produce the right behaviour. Ironically, at this detailed level of interconnection patterns they do it themselves and are little more understandable by their programmers than are the workings of the brain - a black box. Man-in-control of mentality may be a mutable boundary. Where next?

Means and ends

This book is a speculation about future technical means and the breaking of current boundaries of what we understand to be matter, body and mind. It has little specifically to say about ends, about what future life, architectural or otherwise, will be like. Nor has it much social or spiritual dimension. Discussion is focused on the individual - producing a better class of ecstatic trip - not on society.

Spiller's main foray into the spiritual is a requiem for God (the Western variety), a concept now in its 'death throes' '. . . the cyberspatial has already been liberated - and immortality, serial and parallel selves, resurrection, evolution and omnipresence are all within its programming'. He sees the demise of the western concept of God as the inevitable result of man being able to do all these. In a book untroubled by a sense of history, he may have missed the propensity of the inevitabilities of history to go spectacularly wrong (as Messrs Marx and Lenin bear witness).

Writing a utopian book about technology today may appear a naive throw- back to the 1960s' white heat of technological revolution. Technology is the answer; now what was the question? But increasingly today, accelerating change can make unpredictability the most predictable long-term state. Longer-term future scenarios are becoming less credible. Particularly in a nation like Britain with a cultural snobbery against technology, a book thinking about the future technology palette is one appropriate gesture.

* Digital Dreams: Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies. Neil Spiller. Ellipsis: London. 168pp. £19.95

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