As a software engineer, I love seeing new things in tech that take the world by surprise. I still remember when the iPhone and iPod Touch came out, doing away with a keyboard all together – changing the way devices gather input from then on forward. Technology it seems, never stops or moves backwards. It moves forwards at a rate that is slowly surpassing Moore’s Law (stating that computational power doubles every 18 months).
When you’re a kid, experiences root themselves in your mind a lot more so than they do in adulthood. One such experience for me was watching the first Jurassic Park and seeing the reach of science unfold in this crazy fiction by Michael Crichton. I remember watching this very movie and being hit the words of Ian Malcolm in this very scene:
If you can’t watch the video, here it is quoted:
Malcolm begins by saying, “You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility, for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses, to accomplish something as fast as you can – and before you even knew it, you had. You patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and you want to sell it, you want to sell it – well…”. To which Hammond responds by saying, “I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody has ever done before.” After which, Malcolm hits him with the iconic line – “Yeah, yeah… but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
As a programmer and a scientist myself, this line somewhat bites. But I must digress, Dr. Malcolm has a very good point. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we ‘should’ do it. I’ll give you two examples, one pretty obvious and one very controversial.
The first example is artificial intelligence. Now before you think that Terminator is way too far fetched for reality, i’d like to remind you that if you took that iPod Touch back 20 years, you’d probably be branded as a wizard or something. Silicon valley giants such as Elon Musk have actively voiced their opinions on AI, stating that we should be extremely cautious moving into this new frontier. After an interviewer joking stated, “don’t worry, if that happens we’ll just move to Mars”, to which Musk responded rapidly with, “…no, they would chase us there pretty quickly.” This is quite frightening and it really highlights the need to take a step back and realize that sometimes, technology may have to be ‘limited’ in some sense. For example, is sentience and self thought required to advance intelligent machines to the levels of a humans and beyond (in terms of problem solving skills)? Why must a machine ‘think’ in the first place? Is there a need for that in our society, other than proving that life is just the result of constituent atomic matter? I don’t know the answer to this, but it will be interesting to see what comes about as time unfolds.
The second example is immortality. Stop laughing, I’m serious! Many researchers and companies including those that Google invested in as well as the work done by Aubrey De Grey and his team are showing this notion to be not as far fetched as one may think. When it comes down to brass tax, we’re simply organisms that exploit chemical energy in order to sustain our life. This process is known as metabolism, and hinders on cellular processes which break apart macromolecules in order to construct ATP (the energy molecule). At the heart of each lively process is the strands of DNA that encode for producing these ‘micro machines’. The integrity of this DNA is paramount to our survival and any damage may lead to pathologies such as cancer (uncontrollably dividing cells). Have you ever wondered why the elderly are more susceptible to diseases?
Metabolism, although being the processes of life, has negative side effects. Overtime, our cellular repair mechanisms become weaker and our ability to fend of diseases becomes lessened as well. It is postulated that if one can repair these systems, one may be able to keep a person younger for a longer period of time. Interestingly, there exists organisms that are biologically immortal, such as the hydra.
According to Dr. De Grey, it may be possible to reach an ‘escape velocity’ of therapy, whereby the last therapy gives that person enough time to benefit from the next – and so forth. So my question is simple: is immortality ethical and should we be pursuing this goal? After all and without question, old age is the number one killer of human beings (as well as other organisms).
Lets return to Iam Malcolm and his thoughts on the matter. Yes, these two examples would be wonderful to see realized. Personally, I as scientist, would be awe struck of I woke up one day and saw one of these accomplishments in the morning news making headlines worldwide. But we as humans need to be responsible as well, and inherent in our responsibility is the key factor of utilitarianism. Every step we take forward should be in the interest of the greater good, and we should tread carefully. No one knows what lays around the corner of progress, but as history has shown us time and time again, it may very well be a future we that we did not expect in the slightest.