A President for the Cyborg Generation

October 29, 2012








President Lewis Duncan asks students to consider the ethics of their own immortality.

Lewis M. Duncan, president of Rollins College

Teaching students to ask tough questions is at the heart of higher education, says Lewis Duncan. (Photo by Brian Blanco for The Chronicle)

Lewis Duncan
Lewis Duncan leverages his scientific background to be a spokesman for a controversial movement. (Photo by Brian Blanco for The Chronicle)

It's a muggy afternoon here at Rollins College, where the president feels strangely lucky. 

"I have a huge advantage over many of you," Lewis M. Duncan tells a roomful of students in Crummer Hall. "I get to be part of the last generation to die."

Mr. Duncan, a rocket scientist turned college president, has a mild-mannered delivery that softens his habitual provocations. For the past decade or so, he has been giving variations on this same talk, which centers on the notion that exponential advances in technology will make immortality possible for some of today's college students.

Whether they upload their brains to hard drives or benefit from medical advances that will prevent cells from aging, Mr. Duncan is steadfastly certain that some of the students sitting in this room today will be around for hundreds of years to come.

"I'm absolutely confident that this moment is going to occur in your lifetime," Mr. Duncan says, "the moment that we move beyond our biological constraints."

Today Mr. Duncan's audience is a group of about 15 students who are pursuing master's degrees in business administration. He was invited this morning as a guest lecturer, and Mr. Duncan never misses an opportunity to mount this particular soapbox.

By forcing students to wrestle with the moral and ethical implications of a future when man and machine become one, Mr. Duncan believes he is getting to the heart of what a liberal-arts education should be: teaching students to ask tough questions.

"That's what the American education system does so well," he says.

While many college presidents leave the work of dialectics to professors, Mr. Duncan is committed to getting up close and personal with students on this particular subject. Maybe that's because he is fascinated and terrified by the future.

"I'm scared for them," he says.

Playing God?

Mr. Duncan, who was dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College before coming to Rollins, in 2004, is not saying anything particularly new.

He is a spokesman in a movement whose most visible champions include Raymond Kurzweil, an inventor and author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999, Penguin Group). Mr. Kurzweil argues that by the 2030s, computers will have consciousness and be virtually indistinguishable from humans. By 2045, he predicts, we will have reached "the singularity," a theoretical moment in time when technological advances surpass imagination, and immortality is at hand.

These ideas have made Mr. Kurzweil a divisive figure who is praised as a prophet and dismissed as a crackpot. Mr. Duncan says he is not concerned about being described as the latter, because he has the bona fides of a scientist. He earned three degrees, including a Ph.D. in space physics, at Rice University, and he has worked extensively with rockets, radars, and satellites.

"I couldn't do this if I were just a liberal-arts president," he says as he strolls the sidewalks of the Rollins campus, which has the look of a small Spanish village.

For all of his talk about the future, there is something decidedly old school about Mr. Duncan's approach to his job. The college president of today is typically both busy and cautious, and neither trait lends itself to engaging at length with students on topics such as the nature of human existence.

Mr. Duncan recognizes that there are limits to his proselytizing. While he is utterly convinced of the coming singularity, he is not blind to the fact that some view all this talk as the stuff of science fiction.

Important as this vision of the future may seem to Mr. Duncan, he is hardly prepared to make it the centerpiece of his presidency. "It's not something you would want to spend all your time with," he says, acknowledging that the singularity is still viewed by many as a fringe subject.

The time he does spend on the subject, however, is valuable, says Allen H. Kupetz, an executive in residence in Rollins's M.B.A. program. Mr. Kupetz says business students, in particular, need to think about the implications of emerging technologies, which they are very likely to help develop and market in years to come. He has invited Mr. Duncan to talk to his class a half-dozen times and says the president is invariably a hit with students.

"I don't bring him in for brownie points," Mr. Kupetz says. "He gets top marks, so I keep bringing him back."

Mr. Duncan cannot tell students how or when the singularity will occur, but he sees enough trends to agree with Mr. Kurzweil's basic timeline. The president's beliefs are informed by Moore's Law, which states that the power of computing hardware doubles every 24 months. In other words, the table is set for a technological revolution that will allow computer intelligence to rival and surpass human intelligence within the foreseeable future.

"The human brain is a wonderful device. But compared to a computer consciousness, we suck," Mr. Duncan tells the students. "We need chemical energy. We need oxygen. We're error prone. We can suffer physical damage. We have eight hours of maintenance downtime out of every 24, unless you're in college. We just really aren't competitively made for that world."

But can we find a way of coexisting with machines smarter than us? "I believe we can," Mr. Duncan says. "In fact, I believe we have to. We either assimilate or become exterminated. That's the only choice we have."

An hour of the 90-minute lecture has passed, and Mr. Duncan's ideas are starting to sink in with the students. If they could live forever, would they choose to do so?

"I have to work for 500 more years? I'm thinking no way, no way," says Jodie Wong, one of the students.

"Kill me now," another quips.

The room is fast budding with skeptics, who see in Mr. Duncan's PowerPoint presentation a future they cannot fathom, much less tolerate. The president was warmly welcomed to this class, but his ideas are not getting the same cozy embrace.

"We are messing with Mother Nature and playing God. That's what really scares me," says Joonmo T. Ku, a self-described "movie buff" who has seen enough science-fiction films to know that cyborgs almost always turn on humans in the end. "We're going to pay a price for it."

Indeed. The world Mr. Duncan envisions will present terrible choices. For one, there simply won't be enough room for all of us on the planet if everyone lives forever. So who's going to pull the plug on Mom and Dad to make way for Junior?

A show of hands, please?

About half of the students seem willing to off their folks.

Dangerous Discoveries

The future that Mr. Duncan describes seems implausible to some students, but the long journey that brought him to this classroom today appeared similarly unlikely decades ago.

Raised in a log cabin in West Virginia, Mr. Duncan would not have seemed an obvious prospect for dean of engineering at Dartmouth. His father, who worked at a chemical plant, never attended college. Nor did his mother, who was a homemaker and later a bookkeeper.

But one morning in South Charleston, W.Va., a Parade magazine cosmically intervened. His parents stumbled across a story about the nation's top-ranked high-school science programs. Bellaire High School, which is just outside of Houston, was 1,200 miles away. But it was the sort of place where the Duncans figured their brainy son might excel.

The future was not set for him, they thought. It could be changed.

So, at the age of 16, Mr. Duncan boarded his first airplane, along with his family, and began a journey that would eventually take him all the way to a college presidency.

The more Mr. Duncan learned about science, the more he came to appreciate its powerful and destructive potential. Never was this duality clearer to him than during his days as a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked for a decade, starting in 1977.

The cold war was well under way, and Mr. Duncan's principal job at Los Alamos was to design sensors for GPS satellites that could pinpoint clandestine nuclear explosions. This was the era of "trust, but verify," as President Ronald Reagan often said, and much of Mr. Duncan's research was in the service of enforcing nuclear-nonproliferation treaties. At the same time, it is possible that some of Mr. Duncan's science may have made the world a more dangerous place.

"Arguments could be made," he wrote in an e-mail, "that some portions of my work helped advance weapons design and use strategies."

Like most of his colleagues at Los Alamos, Mr. Duncan believed that a strong nuclear arsenal acted as a deterrent for nuclear war rather than a preparation for it. At the same time, he was concerned about what seemed the government's insatiable appetite for nuclear weapons.

On one memorable day at the lab, Mr. Duncan recalls his director assuring the scientists that their jobs were secure because "our grandchildren will be building and testing nuclear weapons."

"He got a standing ovation," Mr. Duncan says, "and I was horrified."

Far more horrifying, he says, will be the weapons that come from the pending technological revolution. Mr. Duncan can envision, for example, biotoxins that target only specific ethnic populations.

"My generation had to deal with nuclear weapons, and we thought that was really tough in the world we had," he tells his students. "The world you all inherit from us is much, much harder."

Mr. Duncan left Los Alamos for Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control, where scientists were recruited to help shape nonproliferation policy. Theodore A. Postol, who was an analyst at the center with Mr. Duncan, sees a direct through-line from the work they did at Stanford to the questions Mr. Duncan is wrestling with now about how new technologies may shape humanity for good or ill.

"Lewis is following in this tradition, although he's thinking of things different than the nuclear threat," says Mr. Postol, now a professor of science, technology, and national-security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "What are the implications of modern science and technology? How do we deal with it?"

Resistance Is Futile

As Mr. Duncan lays out his vision for the future, he tells students that they are essentially powerless to keep at bay the onslaught of cyborgs, nanobots, and who-knows-whats that will someday share the planet with them.

In the more than two million years since our human ancestors started developing crude stone tools, man has seldom resisted a device that provides a competitive advantage. In the 1600s, the Japanese slowed production of firearms to preserve the samurai culture, as Jared Diamond described in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, but even they folded after about 200 years.

"It doesn't matter whether morally you're not comfortable with it. History shows that it happens," Mr. Duncan says. "There's only been a couple of examples where technology has even been suppressed momentarily."

At this point, Mr. Duncan's students could be excused for feeling helpless. One of them, exasperated, says the president has effectively consigned her generation to a "lifetime of sorrows."

While there is nothing students can do to stem the tide of technological progress, Mr. Duncan suggests that important work can be done at the margins. There are certain to be huge gaps between how the rich and the poor benefit from life-extending technologies, he says. These students, he says, have a responsibility to design a society that closes those gaps.

There may also come a day when Mr. Duncan's students decide to unplug themselves to make way for the next generation.

But before they do, he wants them to fight to "save the best of what it means to be human." That means deciding for themselves whether having a family is such a fundamental human value that they would ask their own parents to die so more children can come into the world. That means asking whether their children are any less human if they have microchips in their brains.

"There's no teacher that's got the answers, no book that has solutions," Mr. Duncan says. "There will be lots of opinions, but it's up to you all.

"We can come back in about 500 years and talk about it."

This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 29, 2012. View the original article.

By Jack Stripling

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