What about privacy? Should we just get over it?
How does all this make us more human?
What humanity is about is increasing options and possibilities. So today you have more options and opportunities than someone 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago. I need options, I need possibilities. I am a possibilian.
You say you've been online for 30 years? How on earth?
Where were you guys? It was very lonely! There were these bulletin boards, you dialed a telephone line and went through a computer in someone's bedroom, and that computer would allow, like, 10 people to dial in and you could chat to each other about bulletin boards. Remember when CB radio came along, all the chatter was about CB radio? Now we have Google+ and people talk about Google+ on Google+.
We've struggled for the vocabulary for all this. You still like "grok," a word from a 50-year-old novel, "Stranger in a Strange Land."
The words count. Metaphors are sometimes even more important than facts. A lot of the troubles we have are because of a lack of vocabulary. When the Web started, everyone thought it was going to be like better TV, that you'd have, like, 5,000 channels, there'd be a channel about saltwater aquariums. When we think about what the Web is going to be like in five or 10 years, it's going to be as different from the Web now as the Web was from TV. We don't have words for what it's going to be.
You write about parallels in biology and technology, but nature doesn't invest in a specific outcome the way humans do.
The technium is an extension of the biological realm of life; it's not exactly the same, and the difference is that we want to direct [it]. We don't accept just any outcome, any mutation. We are trying to minimize the amount of destruction in the world, the amount of harm. With the technium, we can actually minimize that.
You've been crusading to identify and catalog every species on earth, a task that combines what Adam did in Genesis and [the work of Swedish botanist Carl] Linnaeus.
I was shocked to learn we don't know how many different species there are on earth. That's an incredible shame. If we discovered life on another planet, almost the first thing we would do is a systematic survey of life on that planet, and we never have done that [here]. We were trying to raise money [during] the dot-com bust, and it didn't work. But a Web page for every known species -- that has actually begun. There's now a kind of place holder Web page for every known species. This area of science is very, very poor. Field biologists are real heroes. Every one of them loves their critter, whether it's a starfish or a fern or a slime mold. To a field biologist, a $10,000 grant is a reason to break out champagne; $10,000 doesn't cover the glassware in an ordinary molecular biology lab. It's all done for love.
Why are you a Christian instead of, say, a Buddhist?
The honest answer is because I was born a Christian. But I also happen to think that the myth of a god who comes into his creation to give assistance to [humans] is true -- to help guide them, to understand why we have pain and suffering. When we make our own artificial world, when we make robots that think and are conscious, when we make a robot that stands up and says "I am a child of God," I think we'll come back to ideas that Christian thinkers have talked about for 2,000 years.
You think we will make robots like that?
Absolutely. This is the trajectory of technology. Life wants to make minds. At the technium, we're using technology to make different kinds of minds that [life] could not make just with DNA directly. It's going to take not just human thinking but other kinds of thinking to understand the full mysteries of the universe.
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.