Power Armor, Superheroes, and Kurtzweil’s Singularity

I never was much a fan of Iron Man. I could never really relate to the character. He was too normal, just a chump in a metal suit, without any mutant powers. He can’t teleport or read minds or steal life force. He’s just a rich kid in an expensive and wholly over-designed tuxedo. Granted, a tuxedo that can fly and shoot bad guys, but still a suit, made by man. Nothing magic or mysterious about it. Lame, right?

And yet, I might use very similar words to describe Batman, and he has always been a role model to me. As I say every day, perception is complicated, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So, I wrote off Iron Man as a child, preferring to focus on the more traditional superheroes, complete with super-human strength or laser vision, things I couldn’t ever imagine could be based in technology. To me, a superhero is special because the universe chose them by randomly imbuing them with magical powers. Sometimes, it’s more complicated than that, as in the case of Wolverine, where man meddles with destiny to exploit the mutant power toward their own ends. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the complicated things in life. Complicated is interesting.

Iron Man is complicated, much more than I ever thought as a child. Maybe it’s the innocence of youth that blinded me to the harsh truths of life. Maybe I wasn’t ready to consider addiction as a primary driving force behind what motivates us to do impossible things, both for good and evil. Since the popular movie franchise has revitalized the Iron Man persona, I’ve been digging deeper into the story. The impetus for this post was speculation about the plot line of the third installment of the movie series. Rumors are flying about what the main story will be, but it seems clear that the yin and yang of Tony Stark’s alcoholism and brilliance, coupled with the seemingly insurmountable threat of the Mandarin, will lead inevitably to the Extremis story arc. This is where nanotechnology blurs the line between man and god.

For those who haven’t read and/or watched the Extremis story, it centers on the intersection of biology with technology. It’s basically a programmable virus that can act as a means of designing new components within the body. Instead of surgically implanting silicon and cobbling together some crude interface between man and machine, we might use programmable nanotechnology to grow cybernetic organs. If this is starting to sound like Kurtzweil’s Singularity, you’ve been paying attention.

A few weeks ago, we discussed biological computing on our podcast (http://distilled.podomatic.com). We whimsically discussed some potential uses for such technology for frivolous things like weight loss. But what happens when this technology starts to find its way into society? As the capabilities of the technology evolve, we are stuck in a hopeless cycle of divergence.

As Einstein famously said, “it is a great tragedy that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”

We are doomed to continue to diverge until we take measured action to inspire more consideration for the moral and ethical growth that is necessary to govern the connected populace. Maybe Kurtzweil was wrong. Yes, the technology is inevitable. It will continue to advance at breath-taking speed. Text-by-thought is no more than 10yrs away, and that barely begins to address the magic of tomorrow’s technology. As we experience this unavoidable intersection of man and machine, it is critical that we remember to remain grounded, lest we lose all of ourselves in the phoenix fire.

We can not predict the extents of our technological capabilities 25yrs from now, but we can guarantee total global annihilation if our moral and ethical evolution does not keep pace with technology. Humanity may not be ready for Iron Man, but power armor will be available on the consumer market before the end of this century. If we do not have an enlightened sensibility about the governance of such incredible power, wielded by average citizens, we will surely suffer. Maybe we can start by putting even 10% of the defense budget into education about peace, mutual prosperity, and tolerance. God knows we’re going to need it. And by “God” I mean Iron Man. In 50yrs, it may be hard to distinguish between them.

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