We are Responsible for our Future
World Future Day 2014
Miriam Ji Sun Leis
We are responsible for our future. We can change more today than we were ever able to do
before. Today we cannot only change our surrounding to an ever increasing degree, but can
also chance aspects of human nature – aspects of our physiology, capabilities and life-spans.
In the past we had desires we were not able to fulfill because of our lack of scientific
knowledge and technology. But today we are in the paradox situation that we have
increasing scientific and technological possibilities at our hands, but are growingly hesitant
about using them. Thus in the future a dominating question will not be “can we do it” but
“do we want to do it” or even “who wants to do it”.
As our scientific and technological development is accelerating at an unprecedented pace –
to a great extend driven by the fast developments in computer and communication
technologies – our surrounding is also changing at an ever faster pace and is getting
increasingly complex. Nonetheless society, legislation and worldviews are often lagging
behind the scientific and technological progress. This causes friction and turbulences as the
force of change is penetrating resisting static arrays.
Since societal, legal and cultural aspects are inventions that are not directly bound to
natural laws – you can break the law, but not a natural law – they are much harder to
predict than technological developments that are based on natural laws. However social,
legal, cultural and ethical dimensions are getting increasingly important for the future of our
future. But in contrast to natural laws, positive law, i.e. man-made law, can be changed.
The next level of conflict may be beyond the measurable and even beyond the discussion
about the common good like access to clean air and water, food and resources. It may be
about how far to merge with technology and how long one should be allowed to live.
We already have the means to achieve really revolutionary things in health, longevity,
energy systems, space exploration and artificial intelligence to name just a few. But citizens,
business and governments need to support such ideas, consider them legal and invest in
them. In order to back them, they have to be understood. R&D needs to be made
transparent and citizens need to be sufficiently educated. People need to be educated
about how to deal with accelerating technological possibilities and information explosion.
They need to be educated to create an accelerating culture. We need cultural acceleration.
Maybe we could start by accepting cultural relativism, as it is easier to accept changes to
something relative than to something static. However, this raises the challenge to what
extend to accept moral and ethical relativism. Should there be things that we never ever
should try to attempt?
Every endeavor bears risks and no technology is likely to be risk-free. However we also have
to consider the risk of doing nothing. By doing nothing and not progressing with science,
research and development, we may risk the lives of humans who might have been saved if
we had better medicine, advanced treatments, better protection or agricultural
technologies. By doing nothing we risk the continuation of suffering, although we could
have provided better nutrition, clean water and better prosthetics. By doing nothing we
may risk war over resources.
We always have to ask: what is at stake, especially at stake if we are not making use of our
growing scientific and technological possibilities. We need a symmetric view in technology
assessment that also takes into account the potentially negative effects of doing nothing,
going backwards or remaining ignorant about new opportunities. On the other hand we
should not become overly enthusiastic about all the new possibilities as this easily leads to
an underestimation of risks. We do not want to lose our foresight because of immediate
gains and shortcuts.
We – especially we as futurists - also need to take greater responsibility for our decisions
and actions as due to growing possibilities, paths and consequences will become
increasingly complex and will have an increasingly greater impact. "With greater power
comes greater responsibility" and with great power comes the temptation of abuse. Those
who have knowledge are also thought to take the responsibility over how this knowledge is
shared and applied.
However, this is not always easy as the same technology may be used to save or destroy
lives. This leads to the question what kind of ethics and guidelines do we need for society to
navigate through the future. In a world with greater freedom and individuality – which is a
good and necessary development - reason and responsibility need to be even more
Unfortunately, still more than one in five people worldwide are living in extreme poverty
and may have never heard anything of advanced science and technology, not to say having
the opportunity to use it. So it should also be the responsibility of the knowledgeable and
affluent to bridge this gap and ensure equal access to progress, which even helps to
improve the overall acceptance of research and development. The trend looks promising,
especially thanks to inventions like 3D printing, open source and affordable gadgets
produced by DIY and maker communities. So this may be called “equal access by design”.
In face of growing possibilities we also need to rethink current perceptions about topics like
life, death, identity, personhood and reliability. Could the hindering of research for
extending healthy life spans, for example, be considered as denial of life-saving assistance?
What should be the legal status of intelligent robots and cyborgs? Which criteria – how
much “human” – will be necessary to define the applicability of human rights? Human
morphology or even genetics and consciousness – whatever it really means - may not be
sufficient criteria. How should “identity” be defined in an era of morphological freedom?
Should autonomous robots be held accountable for their actions, especially if they someday
will be entities with learning capability, running on self-correcting and self-improving
software? The future will require different legal systems - and they need to adapt fast.
From a socio-cultural perspective there may also be much at stake due to advances in
science and technology. Conventional perceptions about being human, about human
biology, physiology, lifespan, limitations and fate and the divine may be overturned. As
people should have their right to choose for themselves which changes to adapt and which
not, in a free society everybody should be free to choose as long as the choice does not
deprive others of their freedom. This also means that people should be free to choose for
themselves what to become, how to change and which personal technologies to use.
To make informed decisions we need to free ourselves from external dogmas. This means
also to bring culture and spirituality to a new level to allow for critical thinking and the
questioning of common beliefs. We need to understand that much of our cultures and
religions have evolved during times where scientific reasoning was rather underdeveloped.
To provide order and explanations for unfathomable events the world was considered to be
governed by supernatural entities that provided order, explanation and comfort. They had
their place in the past, but are already fading in the present and may become obsolete in
their original function in the future. Thus culture and spirituality are functions of time,
scientific knowledge and socio-technological development and need to adapt too.
We need to develop new cultural and value systems that are coherent with our present and
future environment, knowledge and capabilities. We need new directions in education that
is taking into account the possibility of accelerating change. The world when they enter
school may be totally different and overhauled when they leave school. Maybe the whole
concept of conventional schooling is obsolete in the context of transdisciplinary relations,
increasing complexity and accelerating scientific and technological development.
As I said in the beginning, throughout most of human history, humankind was restricted by
its lack of scientific understanding and technological capabilities. Nowadays it looks rather
that humankind is limiting itself culturally of fully benefitting from the scientific and
technological advances it has achieved and will able to achieve. Thus the future is not only
about science and technology but to a significant degree about society, positive law and
Many people are still rather just asking “how will the future be” and some are even fearful
about the future. But the future is not fixed. It is an undiscovered country waiting to be
cultivated by us.