By Dominic Basulto
What if Moore’s Law — the now-famous observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computing power doubles roughly every 18-24 months — held for not just computing complexity, but biological complexity as well? The appearance of so many new exponentially-growing information technologies today, all of them roughly following the trajectory of Moore’s Law — combined with our growing knowledge of how to manipulate the very building blocks of life — would certainly seem to hint at a future in which human potential is eventually measured in exponential rather than linear terms. That has profound implications. It means that even the humans of the near future may look nothing like today’s humans.
Applying Moore’s Law to biological complexity and human development may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Recently, the geneticists Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Maryland and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida crunched the DNA data and found that — even without technological interference — complexity has doubled roughly every 376 million years. What doubles in complexity is not the number of transistors on a circuit, of course, but a proxy for biological complexity: the length of functional, non-redundant DNA per genome, counted by nucleotide base pairs. While a doubling every 376 million years may not sound as impressive as one every 18 months, it does mean that it’s possible to map in a tidy exponential chart the development of all life using DNA — from prokaryotes to eukaryotes to worms to fish to mammals. If you extrapolate backwards, these findings suggest that life started nearly 10 billion years ago -, a finding with dramatic implications for the very origins of life on planet Earth.
So if human life was already developing on an exponential trajectory, imagine what’s possible when humans start taking advantage of all of the new exponential information technologies out there to accelerate the glacial pace of natural evolution. These new exponential information technologies are already giving us unprecedented abilities to mimic nature’s creations (via 3D printing), to increase our powers of awareness (via augmented reality), and to communicate with not only people but objects as well (via sensors hooked up to the cloud). Now, imagine what happens once these acquired traits begin to be transferred to the tiny DNA molecules that define life.
Perhaps the most important of these new exponential technologies are the ones in which individual humans, acting together, are able to “vote” on the advances that push forward the human race. I’m talking about “crowdfunding,” of course, the process by which society uses its collective wisdom to decide how to allocate scarce capital to even scarcer resources. Instead of nature allocating capital to the winners, it’s humans that have the final say in who the “winners” are. The crowdfunding movement spurred by platforms such as Kickstarter hint at what’s possible. First, we were able to raise tens of thousands of dollars, seemingly overnight, for unique and creative projects that increase the human capital of the human race. Now, we’re able to raise millions.
The next phase, as Dave Girouard pointed out in an opinion piece for Wired, is the crowdfunding of people rather than the crowdfunding of projects. At that point, we’d essentially be placing bets on which individuals have the best ideas for advancing the human race. Indirectly, we’d be betting on the underlying DNA of those individuals — that they have the smarts, the savvy and the endurance to succeed. Using equity capital to fund human capital could be the next great transformation of crowdfunding, unlocking even more human potential.
We could be living in a new exponential age in which we’re about to reach the steep “stick” part of the proverbial hockey-stick growth curve showing exponential growth. There are various names for this new era, with the most familiar of these being “the Singularity”, but all of them describe a common phenomenon: the moment when mankind is able to outgrow its biological limitations by fusing with technological machines. It may not happen within the next decade, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil and others, and it may not even happen during our lifetime. But it is almost a certainty that the pace of human development is accelerating at a pace that’s faster than a simple doubling every 376 million years