We are responsible for our future


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Presentation by Dr. Miriam Ji Sun on the occasion of International Future Day Conference, India

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We are responsible for our future

  1. 1. 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. 1
  2. 2. 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 emphasized. 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, 2
  3. 3. 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. 3
  4. 4. 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 culture. 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. 4