A lecture in the ongoing “Science and Democracy” lecture series, “Catastrophic Risks: The Downsides of Advancing Technology,” with Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, explored the vulnerability of global society to the unforeseen consequences of new and powerful technologies. Presenting their views on the complex matter, the lecture’s accompanying panel was star-studded with figures from the academic world: Sven Beckert, the Laird Bell Professor of History; George Daley, of Harvard Medical School; Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government; Daniel Schrag, Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment; all moderated by Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies.
Giving context and debate to the subject, Martin Rees reflected on the interesting mix of optimism and anxiety surrounding current and to-come scientific advancements. “The stakes are indeed getting higher,” he stated, worried that we may have entered an age in which it is impossible to adapt to the risks posed by an ever-quickening technological pace. As one could expect, the Astronomer Royal first considered future threats posed by climate change. A “long-term and insidious” issue, climate change posed risks to humans and the environment as we know it. With extinction rates attributed to climate change on the rise, Rees lamented that we may “[destroy] the Book of Life, before we’ve read it.”
But how can we solve such a global issue? At this question, Rees proposed another: Why shouldn’t clean energy research be on the same scale as medical research? Though, at first thought, these areas of research are extremely different, the implications—directly or indirectly—they both have for human health and security in the future are, arguably, comparable. De-carbonization, Rees remarked, presents little potential for major reduction in emissions currently, but could, with technological advancement, constitute a Plan B, if matters get uglier. Just as in the case of, say, Hurricane Sandy and other meteorological outliers, the world may need to witness the worst before it can act so drastically. Arguing the opposite, Professor Schrag pondered if technology could even be the answer to a problem so global, and if, instead, the global society should reduce emissions by reforming the underlying social and ethical conditions that allow for so much consumption.
Next, the Astronomer Royal opened his discussion to the issues of non-environmental technological risks, which go “underdiscussed.” Regarding virological research, Rees noted that there are efforts by the United States government to place a moratorium on “superbug” studies, but not without much contention. Rees added that this sort of research is also vulnerable to bioterrorism, rendering the future “very unpredictable.” Thus, he concluded, as the scientists delve into the limits of their disciplines, they must also be wary of the notion of the “Laboratory Earth.”
Again, speaking in regards to medical research, George Daley later spoke to the risks posed by future developments in genetic modification. With a far more advanced understanding of the human genome, we may one day be able to grow humans as we currently grow cells in petri dishes; this, Daley noted, could extend beyond genetic disease and onto facets of human appearance and behavior. Great social and political problems—think of an engineered regime of eugenics—could precipitate out of this advancement, stigmatizing those who are “unimproved.” While Daley concluded that it is unlikely that our attempts to control the traits we really want will not be devastating in this way, it is still the responsibility of scientists to anticipate risk and inform policymakers. Just after, in her addition to the debate, Professor Hochschild stated that these political actors must gauge the state of optimism and pessimism on an issue like genetic engineering, or they will not have the proper tools to engage the issue on the national stage.
The lecture did successfully shed light on some of the risks of our ever-advancing, ever-updating technology, there is no question. Let’s return, however, to the notion of the “underdiscussed” issue. First: underdiscussed by whom? With extensive literature, research, and lectures just like this, it can be hard to believe so. Rees’ comment left me wondering if, in fact, these sorts of risks go underdiscussed outside of the academic vacuum. Although this may theorize too much on matters too nebulous, I felt as if scientists of the future might have to worry not just about the risks their studies pose, but also about the dangers of reporting these risks only within the academic and political spheres.