Evolution at work

The reality of cyber-symbiont terrorists

By Shelly Palmer

Are the "new" terrorists going to be Terminator-like? The U.S. government seems to think so in a new report suggesting al-Qaida's newest bombs are people with surgically implanted explosives.

Are the "new" terrorists going to be Terminator-like? The U.S. government seems to think so in a new report suggesting al-Qaida's newest bombs are people with surgically implanted explosives.

The U.S. government says they have credible intelligence that al-Qaida’s newest bombs are people with surgically implanted explosives or explosive components. This is the logical extension of the current arms race. They use metal weapons, we install metal detectors, they escalate the race by using non-metallic weapons, we create better scanners … now, we have pretty good scanners and sniffers, so they will surgically implant the explosives. It makes perfect sense. But something else is happening here.

When I read this report, I couldn’t’ help but think of the first viable artificial life forms created by man – computer viruses. Yep, you read it right. The first self-replicating, non-biological life created by us (human beings) was a malevolent computer virus. And, although there are now plenty of benevolent computer viruses in use, the vast majority of artificial life on this planet is malevolent in the extreme. There are something like two million species of active computer viruses floating around the Internet.

Which brings me to this week’s thought experiment. We are already cyborgs. According to Wikipedia, a cyborg is a “being” with both biological and artificial (e.g. electronic, mechanical or robotic) parts. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term in 1960 in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space.

Looking at a typical connected person in 2011, you can clearly see that we augment our biological abilities with digital tools. From search engines to cloud-computing services to GPS to communications tools like text, voice and video, our handheld devices empower us in ways that we could hardly imagine just a few years ago. And, while all of these tools are external, they combine in a symbiotic way to make us cyborgs.

If you read some Ray Kurzweil, and buy into any of his evolutionary theory, you know that nanotechnology is just a few years away from being commercialized. It and other technologies are advancing at an escalating rate. When fully deployed and woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, these tools will enhance our abilities and evolve us into whatever is next. In his book, “The Singularity is Near,” Ray predicts that we will become one with machines by 2029 and that there will be a race of MachineHumans or HumanMachines. His math and his logic are compelling. You may not agree with his timing (many learned scientists don’t) but you cannot deny his conclusions. No matter how you calculate it, the human race is extremely close to merging with our technology.

What fascinates me is that it’s al-Qaida, not Big Brother or the NSA or Skynet, is going to take the first steps implanting technology in humans for interaction with the outside world. (We’ve been implanting pacemakers and other medical devices to keep us alive for years, but those devices have worked in a closed system.) It looks like history is repeating itself. The first HumanMachines, the very first cyber-symbiont is going to be a human being with explosives surgically implanted in them — a malevolent life form – just like the first artificial life form.

I’m not sure if this is a coincidence, or an indictment of human beings as a species. I am sure that if the singularity is near, we had better do a better job of thinking this through. Why couldn’t the first cyber-symbiont be a combination of electronic computer components to help us see better or think faster or give us better access to facts? Why does it have to be a weapon? To me, the question is more terrifying than the terrorist.

Shelly Palmer is the host of NBC Universal’s Live Digital with Shelly Palmer, a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5 New York’s On-air Tech Expert and the host of Fox Television’s monthly show Shelly Palmer Digital Living. He also hosts United Stations Radio Network’s, Shelly Palmer Digital Living Daily. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards).

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