Joel Garreau: Radical Evolution
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|Joel Garreau (2005): Radical Evolution, pp 67-71, Doubleday
At dusk, through brightly lit dust, the stadium in which the Super
Bowl is to be played the next day looks like the most impressive craft extraterrestrials ever imagined landing. Strobes flash from its sides, smoke from test fireworks wafts from its interior,unexpected pulses of illumination shear through banners, blades of focused light shoot out for miles. To embrace all of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium you have to sweep your eyes from left to right. The city's red trolley cars pull up like toys. Even the blimps overhead-flying in formation as if they were alien escort craft, radiating orange and yellow light from within--seem puny.
The figure striding across the top of the stadium is barely discernible. He's walking on the light ring. That's the thin concrete halo below which dangle the flood lamps, well above the highest seats. The light ring is no wider than the hood of an SUV It has no handrails. It's an 8o-foot drop off one side and a 3oo-foot drop off the other. Every 10 paces, the figure moving on it has to dance over yet another crate of high explosives that will be part of tomorrow's fireworks display. Dressed in black, with his baseball cap reversed, he prances out to the very end of the strip with the sort of abandon that curdles your innards even if you are sitting firmly on the ground watching it through binoculars.
He's out there to aim the laser cannon at his friends. Again.
His friends are just 400 yards from the stadium in an unadorned industrial garage. It is just across that deep ditch of a ravine grandly named the San Diego River. Beyond that, the I-8 roars. The garage has roll-up doors at either end and is big enough to handle a couple of tractor-trailers. But that's not what's in it. The garage is a fluorescent-lit void being filled with possibilities. A crowd of young men have pushed tables and desks to the center and covered them with screwdrivers, cables flowing down from
the ceiling, monitors, keyboards, headsets, surge suppressors, garage door openers, FedEx boxes, Pizza Hut boxes, Bud Light boxes, Snapple Pink Lemonade boxes, satellite dishes, joysticks and robots made out of Legos. In the corner is a Honda 6ooR competition motorcycle. A movie-quality blonde occasionally swings by in a wine-colored Jaguar, bringing in more food, like Wendy tending the Lost Boys. A pink inflated bubble suit wanders through. Turns out there is a man inside. He is equipped to investigate unhappy nuclear reactors.
From this tumult, a fog of intelligence is emerging. This project is called The Shadow Bowl. This hive, hosted by San Diego State University, is nicknamed "The River." Very fat pipes connect it to the Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego. What this is about is wiring the Super Bowl for human cognition.
Some of the cables lead up to the roof. There stands another laser cannon. If you precisely aim one laser cannon at another, you can create a beam of conjoined light along which you can transmit anything you can imagine and some things you might not think exist. Lasers have very narrow beams, though. So aligning them is no small trick. It seems Shania Twain's band-the one that will be playing at halftime and which is now rehearsing on the So-yard line-is so amped that its bass notes vibrate the light ring. This throws the beams out of whack, breaking the connection. That is why the leader of this enterprise, Dave Warner, is up there dancing on top of that damn fool light ring, re-aiming that laser.
This gathering is actually a sophisticated collection of perhaps a hundred people with biological, chemical, radiological, temperature, weather, motion and video sensors who are attempting to conduct an unusual experiment. They are engaged in an exercise that resonates to that possible outcome of The Curve called The Singularity. They are trying to make an entire multi-square-mile environment intelligent.
In the parking lot outside The River, antennas bristle. Truck-mounted robot uplinks scan the skies with their dishes, looking for their satellites like baby birds searching for their mothers. This is the Super Bowl of January 2003, only 16 months after the 9/11 attacks. The worry is what happens if there is an assault on this biggest secular holiday event of the American calendar. It's no small concern. Some idiot has allowed a gasoline storage depot to operate just uphill from Qualcomm Stadium. If somebody were to fly a plane into that tank farm, flaming petroleum would head right for the stadium. The ravine of the river is heavily shielded with brush. If someone were to infiltrate it with mortars filled
with biological, chemical or radiological weapons, it would be an easy lob to the 50-yard line.
The more you look at the festive stadium from the roof of the nearby garage brain center, the more uneasy you become. There are so many ways to attack those happy, innocent football lovers colorfully garbed as pirates for the game between the Raiders and the Buccaneers, teams named for outlaws of three centuries past. It's almost too perfect. It gives one a shudder. Overhead, Blackhawk helicopters and jet fighters roam. Somehow this is not comfort-inducing.
The Defense Department, of course, is funding much of this work down by The River. Warner has been a DARPA principal investigator. He carries himself with the swagger of a lifeguard (which he used to be), sporting long, rock-star-quality hair, now receding at the forehead. (The blonde carting in supplies who has a smile so big you can see her molars is Janice Robertson, his girlfriend.) He favors fashionable sunglasses and a cell phone in a hip holder that he perpetually twirls like a six-gun. He has an MD and a PhD and variously describes himself as a cultural engineer and a neuroscientist. He has a tiny but powerful light-emitting diode taped to the bill of his baseball cap, demonstrating how often he has to perform surgery on small, dark pieces of gear. He refers to his funders as "DARPA Vader Ville."
As far as Defense was concerned, what was being demonstrated here was how it might be possible to recognize a weapon of mass destruction and react to mass casualties. The practical result emerging was something quite different.
There is a uniform one comes to recognize at a gathering of those who are inventing the future. At The River, everyone wears black jeans and black sneakers, out of sheer habit. If you arrange to have little else in your wardrobe, getting up in the morning involves two fewer decisions. The ideal topper for such an ensemble is a black T-shirt. As it happens, Warner has provided those for the two dozen stalwarts at the core of this exercise. High up on the chest of these Shadow Bowl staff shirts there is a symbol of a figure that seems to have archangel wings, surrounded by a ring of palm fronds. It gives the staffers the curiously authoritative look of an intergalactic peacekeeping team. Warner gave careful psychological consideration to these symbols. The message: Don't mess with the guys in the black T-shirts.
Among this hard core, the significant marks of individuality and identity involve the weird stuff hanging around their belts. People pull out of
their fanny packs the most impressive things-an entire socket wrench set, or a knife sufficient for gutting a calf, or an Iridium phone that can connect directly to a satellite. My award for the best status display, however, goes to the fellow with a sling on his belt from which hangs a flashlight with a red lens. That object states that you are so adapted to dark rooms illuminated only by computer screens that when you need to search under the desk for misconnected cables, you view it as unthinkable to ruin your batlike night vision with a beam approaching daylight spectrum. It would harsh your mellow.
None of this, however, is to be mistaken for lack of serious purpose. All manifestations of bleeding-edge technology by definition are demonstrations of the just barely possible. Thus they usually appear ragged and unprepossessing. By the time the future has all its wires carefully tucked away in a nice metal box where you can no longer see the gaffer tape, it is no longer the future. If you had been in Steve jobs' garage in 1976, looking at the first mock-up of the Apple personal computer, you might have been forgiven for not seeing in it an agent of massive social change. You might not have looked at it and instantly seen e-mail, much less Google, in your personal future.
Just so, you have to squint a little at this ragtag collection of boys and their toys in San Diego to imagine where all this takes us. But for one weekend in January, what happened was that the boys of the Shadow Bowl for the first time in human history made several square miles of the San Diego River smart. They made the water smart, with sensors making it alert to little biological critters meant to do harm. They made the air smart, full of sensors wary of radiation, chemicals and detonations. They made the dirt smart, sensitive to the movement of would-be attackers. Most important, they imaged all this and ported the intelligence into one place. There blossomed unprecedented simultaneous views of everything that was going on in the area, from the parking lots to the drunk tank to the end zones.
They did this in part to imagine how you'd build a superorganism. How might you rebuild the connections between human and machine if you were to adapt the machines to the human nervous system, rather than the other way around? Dave Warner calls this the "last-millimeter" problem-the stubborn and persistent lack of connection between all that our machines can gather and all that our minds can know.
How would you wire all of the senses that humans come equipped with and make them a seamless part of a network in which the distinction
between human and machine blurred? How might you feed information directly to your skin so that you would know whether a potential threat was coming from the left or the right? How might you feed information directly to your ears, which can make fine distinctions that eyes cannot? If something small but bad started to happen, you might instantly hear and recognize a discordance as certainly as you could tell which violin suddenly went out of tune in a philharmonic. How might you use your nose to alert you to critical incoming information by overriding all the other senses as if with a sudden burst of ammonia?
In such a world, the superb human ability to recognize patterns would be an element in a loop that roamed far beyond what is now the human ability to sense. If the human so connected were a fighter pilot or an air traffic controller or a pollution monitor, it would allow her to actually feel, hear and smell tens of thousands of cubic miles of space, alert to discord or opportunity in the music of the spheres. In this fashion, the intelligence of millions of little networked agents would enhance human thought. Augmented perception, this is called, extending our senses out past our skin, giving humans mastery of all they survey and beyond. It is meant to be a qualitative change in what it means to be human, to be enhanced in ways beyond the imagination of any previous generation.