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Lecture pinpoints the human-technology connection

November 13, 2007

The species that discovered fire, invented antibiotics and sent a man to the moon, all to control its environment, now is looking inward to modify itself, using technologies that are changing what it means to be human, according to an author who will give a public lecture Nov. 15 at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Joel Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, will present the seventh annual Hogan & Hartson Jurimetrics Lecture, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology at the College of Law. The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 4 p.m., Nov. 15, in the Great Hall. A reception and book signing will follow.

Garreau is the author of “Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What It Means to Be Human” (2005, Doubleday), which takes an unprecedented, fascinating and sometimes alarming look at the hinge in history on which society is perched. He reports about the changes to our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny that already are taking place, from allegedly enhanced super-athletes such as Barry Bonds, to an exoskeleton suit that the Army hopes will ultimately enable soldiers to literally leap tall buildings in a single bound, to male mouse cells being transformed into egg cells in a lab.

“We’re tried to transform human nature for a long time now,” Garreau says. “We’ve tried Socratic reasoning and Buddhist enlightenment and Christian sanctification and Cartesian logic and the New Soviet Man. Our successes have ranged from mixed to limited, at best.”

That long history of futility is changing, claims Garreau, whose book cites numerous examples of technology, both in development and existence, which is rapidly reshaping our lives. His message is that these changes are real, not science fiction, that they are coming much faster than we think, and that there are three scenarios for how this will shape society and the law:

• The “Heaven Scenario,” in which pain, suffering, disease and even death is conquered, and technology is in control, while humans ride the wave of accelerating improvements.

• The “Hell Scenario,” which, in this generation, is characterized by the irreversible destruction of the human race and the biosphere. According to this view, technology lands in the wrong hands, and it overwhelms its handlers.

• The “Prevail Scenario,” in which the future isn’t predetermined but is chosen by people who collectively and effectively tame the technologies that they view as harmful and speed up advancements that seem positive.

Garreau will expound on these scenarios, in addition to presenting “The Law of Unintended Consequences,” a law school-tailored example of what could happen if some of the engineering currently being funded comes to market. The story is about a law student whose “enhanced” peers are fast, creative thinkers with photographic memories, total recall, and stunning looks who have been vaccinated against pain. They also don’t sleep for a week or more at a time, thanks to medication that shuts off the human trigger to sleep. That medication exists today.

The Hogan & Hartson lecture honors the late Lee Loevinger, a former partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm that has provided an endowment to the college for a lecture series on jurimetrics, the scientific study of the law.

Before his association with Hogan & Hartson, Loevinger served as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, as the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice in charge of its Antitrust Division, and as a commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission.