Is there something unusual about the pace and nature of technological change today? Should we be more worried about the world we’re creating?
Michael Bess is a historian of science at Vanderbilt University and the author of Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in a Bioengineered Society.
His book offers a sweeping look at our genetically modified future, a future as terrifying as it is promising. But he’s also someone who thinks a lot about the broader relationship between technology and society.
The role that technology plays in human life is becoming an increasingly urgent question. Big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are under fire for their role in spreading fake news and misinformation during the 2016 presidential election. But the impact of social media will likely pale in comparison to potential revolutions in artificial intelligence or gene editing technologies.
Bess was reached to talk about our technological future and why he thinks we’re not asking the sorts of questions we should be asking about where we’re headed and what it will mean for humanity.
But what we’re on the verge of doing with bioengineering technologies like CRISPR is going to be so qualitatively different and more powerful that I think it’s going to force us to reassess who we are and what it means to be human. Bioelectric implants, genetic modification packages, the ability to tamper with our very biology — this stuff goes far beyond previous advances, and I’m not sure we’ve even begun to understand the implications.
But it’s not just the nature of technological change today; it’s also the pace. How different is this compared to previous eras?
The pace is, I think, significantly different. We went from having no World Wide Web to a full-blown World Wide Web in 20 or 25 years — that’s astonishing when you consider how much the internet has changed human life. In the case of, say, telephones, that took many decades to fully spread and become as ubiquitous as it is today.
So what we’ve seen with the internet is blisteringly fast compared to the past. For most of human history, the world didn’t change all that much in a single lifetime. That’s obviously not the case anymore, and technology is the reason why.
“But you don’t want to change habits so dramatically, deeply, and swiftly that it breaks the bonds that hold our society together.”
And what about that worries you?
I worry that we don’t have enough time to adjust. What is all this doing to our habits, to our cultural sense of who we are? When these things happened slower in previous eras, we had more time to assess the impacts and adjust. That is simply not true anymore. We should be far more worried about this than we are.
That’s the thing that worries me the most. Our technology is developing so much faster than our culture and our institutions, and the gap between these things can only grow so far before society becomes dangerously unstable.
We need to be asking specific questions about what we’re gaining and what we’re losing. We’re faced with these new, rapidly shifting means of communication and interaction. What are the pros and cons? I think you can make the case that there are significant benefits and equally significant harms, but it’s hard to really know what those are because so many of these changes are unforeseen or unpredictable.
Do you think we’re equipped, as a society, to step back and ask those questions?
I think overall as a society, we’re insufficiently equipped, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of voices out there speaking sanity. What’s interesting is that you can use these new technologies to get in touch with those voices and connect with other people who are questioning these technologies. The ability to connect in that way offers a lot of promise if it’s used wisely.
“Either our survival is at risk or we become semi-machines who are like the marionettes of our own moment-to-moment experience” Sean Illing
Technologies are tools that can be put to good or bad use. But my sense is that devices like smartphones are rapidly pushing us away from the world. We’re losing our ability to be in the world in a way that isn’t mediated by some electronic appendage.
That’s the big concern. My students are aware of this, even though everybody seems to be walking around campus mindlessly staring at their phones. But when you sit down and talk to young people today, it’s clear that they understand what’s happening and why it’s problematic.
The more you live through screens, the more you’re living in a narrow bandwidth, an abstract world that’s increasingly artificial. And that virtual world is safe and controllable, but it’s not rich and unpredictable in the way the real world is. I’m worried what will happen if we lose our connection to reality altogether.
What technological developments do you think have the potential to do the greatest harm to our species and to our way of life?
It really depends which technologies we’re talking about. I’m writing a book now called Controlling the Technologies of Apocalypse. It’s about the emergence of synthetic biology, which is basically human beings redesigning their biological structure. It’s about us modifying our very genetic code — that’s extremely dangerous if it’s not controlled and safeguarded.
I also worry about nuclear weapons. Nukes remain an ever-present threat, but people have become complacent about them just because they’ve been reduced by two-thirds from the peak numbers of the Cold War. But they’re still there, and they’re still being modernized, and they’re still pointed at each of us.
Artificial intelligence is another technology with potentially apocalyptic implications, and that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
“We’re more complex than we can fathom, and there’s something about us that is the opposite of artificial” Sean Illing
What worries you about AI?
Intelligence is what made humans the dominant species on the planet. Intelligence is the most powerful instrument around. If you’re embodying that kind of intelligence in increasingly sophisticated machines and are coming to depend on them more and more over time, what worries me is that we’re headed in the direction of building AI technologies that are at the human level and, eventually, far beyond that.
We’re not talking about the narrow forms of AI like the one that drives the Google car or helps the doctor make diagnoses or helps people on Wall Street make investment decisions — those are all very specialized forms of AI and, as far as I can tell, are mostly harmless.
I’m worried about advanced forms of AI becoming so intelligent that they can perform an infinite variety of tasks across domains of activity. We’ll continue to make them smarter and more capable and more powerful until we reach a point at which they start to learn on their own and start to modify themselves. Once that happens, they’ll be fully unpredictable — and then who the hell knows what happens next.
You said earlier that these technologies, especially bioengineering, might fundamentally alter what it means to be human. Can you say a bit more about that?
What’s most striking about us as humans is that we are unpredictable in very basic ways. We’re more complex than we can fathom, and there’s something about us that is the opposite of artificial. It’s the opposite of something made.
What the genetic engineering stuff promises to bring down the line is human beings who are tailored to particular purposes, either by themselves over time or by other human beings. So I’m worried that we’ll become products or commodities, and products or commodities are subordinated to particular functions or purposes.
All of this genetic modification technology has the potential to take us into very worrisome territory where all the things we hold dear in our current world, all the values that give our lives meaning, are at risk. Either our survival is at risk or we become semi-machines who are like the marionettes of our own moment-to-moment experience. What becomes of autonomy? What becomes of free will? All these questions are on the table.
“The more you live through screens, the more you’re living in a narrow bandwidth”
Let me push back a little here because I know a lot of people will read this and say you’re overreacting. They’ll say people have always made these sorts of noises about new technologies and that humans, in any case, are always evolving and changing.
I’m not saying that in the year 2500, people need to be exactly like they are now. I’m not trying to put some sort of artificial constraints on what humans can make of themselves over time. We’ve changed a lot. We’ll continue to change. But you don’t want to change habits so dramatically, deeply, and swiftly that it breaks the bonds that hold our society together. And you don’t want to shatter our sense of identity so quickly that it creates a kind of existential chaos.
What are the questions we should be asking ourselves now about technology and human nature and the future?
I think each of us needs to ask, “What does it mean for a human being to flourish?” These technologies are forcing us to be more deliberate about asking that question. We need to sit down with ourselves and say, “As I look at my daily life, as I look at the past year, as I look at the past five years, what are the aspects of my life that have been the most rewarding and enriching? When have I been happiest? What are the things that have made me flourish?”
If we ask these questions in a thoughtful, explicit way, then we can say more definitely what these technologies are adding to the human experience and, more importantly, what they’re subtracting from the human experience.