At last week’s TEDxTuttle, there were two talks, one after the other, about future technology now.
One was by P.W. Singer on the future of robotics in warfare. It was fascinating but also disturbing: it showed that a lot of weaponry now uses robotics devices, often controlled from bunkers thousands of miles away by people who are familiar with computer games. Much of this technology is available to anyone – not just large nation-states, but terrorist organisations and, probably, individuals. Singer’s point was that we need to think very carefully about how we uese this technology, and that it isn’t a decision to be left to generals or politicians – the way we allow the state to fight wars on our behalf, and the extent to which we allow them to dehumanise the enemy to enable killing affect us all.
It is a chilling, fairly pessimistic video. Perhaps it’s just that I don’t like video games.
Next up was a live presentation by Rachel Armstrong. (There is going to be a video of her talk on the TEDxTuttle website, I think.) This was a real contrast to Singer, hugely optimistic and forward-thinking, about how we can use synthetic forms which mimic life to help solve some of the problems faced by the world. These are non-living things like micro-organisms (they looked a lot like slime molds to me) engineered to have specific properties. Armstrong envisaged incorporating these into building materials to create a climate control system, for instance, or creating forms which remove CO2 from the atmosphere and deposit it as solid carbonates – she said it would be possible to make these photo-phobic, for instance, so one could seed the Venice lagoon and create chalk reefs which would support the crumbling foundations and stop the city falling into the water.
This felt like the very stuff of sci-fi. And despite the optimism, I couldn’t help thinking about the unintended consequences of technology. For instance, one hundred years ago, the industrial revolution was seen as the huge driver for economic growth and the western world was being radically changed by the internal combustion engine: it is only with hindsight that we know the harm done to the planet by pollution and greenhouse gases.
My first thoughts were how would we control these non-life organisms? How would we stop the chalk-creating creatures from growing a reef in Venice so that the canals became pavements? Armstrong said the growth of these synthetic organisms was currently controlled by energy sources – they stop without food; and in the absence of any genetics or true metabolism, they cannot change or evolve; but she also said that these were early, early days in this research – who knows what we might create in the next fifty years.
I then got to thinking about both sessions together: Armstrong’s synthetic life-forms could clearly be used for good – to combat climate change, to secure buildings, to provide fertiliser to barren landscapes; but what if they were engineered to do harm, by a state or terrorist group (or a mad scientist squirrelled away in their underground laboratory…). Engineered micro-organisms from AIDS through SARS to swine-flu are the stuff of conspiracy theories; but a lot can be done with bio-engineering. Consider what malicious powers – ours or anybody else’s – could do with synthetic materials which don’t require complex genetic engineering.
So it was a fascinating couple of sessions; but it provided a chilling glimpse of the future now, too.