Can humanity stay on top?

We thought we'd rule the world, with robots as servants. More likely, they will take charge while we

We squabble among ourselves and call it "politics" when the real problem is the one that all humanity has in common: our own ingeniousness. Within a few decades, computers and robots will be cleverer than us and we won't dare to unplug them, while the new biotechnologies could transform our species. We cannot afford simply to be Luddite, and just give up science: if there were some United Nation decree to that effect, most of us would soon die, because six billion people on six small continents need high tech for day-to-day survival. Besides, anyone who ignored such a decree would soon rule the world.

So science and high tech are our destiny. But the means by which we control them fall short of what is required by an order of magnitude. We need to cling not just to our physical, individual lives but to our humanity. The signs are that we are losing.

This isn't just me talking, but also Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, a creator of software for 25 years. In a 20,000-word essay in Wired magazine - which has been compared to Einstein's letter to Roosevelt in 1939 warning of the atomic bomb - he suggests that human beings face "something like extinction" in two generations. "We are on the cusp," he writes, "of extreme evil."

Is he right? And what can we do about it? Information Technology (IT) enthusiasts suggest that human (conscious) brains differ from computers only in the complexity of their circuitry: build in enough conditional clauses and feedback loops, and a computer might indeed write (and even respond) like Coleridge. Others, notably the Berkeley philosopher John Searle, argue that human minds are qualitatively different, and that even the cleverest computers will merely imitate consciousness.

In the end, as Alan Turing said half a century ago, it may not matter whether tomorrow's computers are "literally" conscious or not. If they simulate consciousness so that none of us can tell the difference, then why would the difference matter? Computers already have fabulous calculating power, bottomless memory, endless patience and stamina. If we add in consciousness and build in emotion, they will be formidable indeed. Such machines, says Joy, could be with us in 30 years.

Increasingly, we will let them run our institutions for us. We will begin with the boring ones, such as banks - and who would not prefer a manager with the combined talents of Adam Smith, Shakespeare, Einstein and the patience of Mother Teresa, to, say, Captain Mainwaring? Present-day computer banking is toe-in-the-water stuff, too trivial to register. Soon, we will hand over enterprises requiring decisions that are not merely arithmetical but that have aesthetic and ethical connotations as well. Increasingly, it will seem perverse not to put the computers in charge, for they will be much less likely to make mistakes than any human being. Bit by bit, in the interests of benign efficiency, the computers will suggest to us very gently how to live our lives.

At what point will some future all-wise computer opt to disobey our inept commands? How, then, would we get the power back? If we threaten to unplug it, then its counter-threat would be to shut down the railways or all the planes in the fly-by-wire RAF - just for starters, as a shot across the bows. After all, computers already talk to each other - and we can't afford for them not to. If we take an axe to the errant machine, as in standard sci-fi B-movies, the world would shut down anyway.

What, then, would be the role of humanity? Our cosy vision of future people with robot battalions of servants and pets is much more likely to be reversed. They will be much better at thinking, and knowing what needs to be done. We will be very good at running around, just as we are now - carrying pots of tea, or cans of oil. In an efficient world, we would be the servants.

Then there is biotech. A decade ago, biotechnologists could take refuge in the plea of impossibility. Designer human beings? Don't worry! Can't be done! It's all just media hype. The mere transfer of genes has been possible since the 1970s; but biologists have long insisted that it was "biologically impossible" to reverse the destiny of cells, to turn cultured skin-cells, say, back into whole creatures. But Dolly the sheep shows that such things are possible. Cloning, and hence advanced genetic engineering, can be done. If we were prepared to take the risks, we could re-design ourselves.

The suggestion of the American scientist Richard Seed that human beings could be cloned immediately is absurd. But within a few hundred years, cloning and genetic manipulation could be almost literally childish - perhaps carried out by schoolchildren, just as they now routinely isolate DNA. The expression "biologically impossible" should now be formally abandoned. We should assume that all biotech is feasible, provided only that it does not break what the great 20th-century biologist Sir Peter Medawar called "the bedrock laws of physics".

So what's to stop the super-computer political takeover within the 21st century, or the redesigned human being within the third millennium? Virtually nothing. That's the point. Lee Silver, genetics professor at Princeton University and author of Remaking Eden, implies that we cannot improve on the free market and that, if we follow the market, then we will have designer babies, because people will want to invest in genes, just as they now invest in a Princeton education. Similar market forces will also drive us towards computer takeover - because computer-directed companies will be demonstrably more competent. So where will all this leave us: our kind of people?

If we are not prepared to think of our evolved selves as some obsolete life form, we need something more sensitive than the free market. Social democracy is supposed to give the market some social direction, but social democracy in turn needs to bring serious moral principles to bear. So what principles? Joy quotes the Dalai Lama in saying that "the most important thing is for us to conduct our lives with love and compassion for others". Indeed. This is what all the great prophets of all the great religions have said - Moses, John the Baptist, Christ, Mohammad, Ramakrishna. All of them emphasise the need for personal humility, for respect (for fellow human beings) and for a sense of reverence for the universe as a whole (though they tend to talk of "love of God"). In other words, they focus on emotional response, not on argument - and as David Hume said in the 18th century, all morality in the end is rooted in emotional response. Our sensibilities, ethical and aesthetic, make us human and distinguish us from computers. This, above all, is what we need to hang on to.

So, what's to be done? If we think that democracy means anything at all, then we should all learn science posthaste, for this is the most significant agent of social change, besides which all else is trivial. Moral philosophy must be on every curriculum - but it is not enough, because it deals only with argument; and what counts, as Hume said, are the emotional foundations of morality, which the arguments of philosophers contrive merely to justify. We need prophets, in short, to restore a sense of direction. Bring on John the Baptist, or his modern equivalent, for nothing less will do.

The writer's latest book, "The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived", is now available from Oxford University Press, at £35