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Frankenstorm: Tech Apocalypse, Interrupted

October 29, 2012, 11:32 AM

Technology run amok – a classic scenario of many apocalyptic science fiction movies in recent years – has finally been replaced by another, even scarier plotline – Mother Nature run amok. Just consider some of the satellite imagery of Frankenstorm Sandy streaming up America’s East Coast, ready to pack a wallop along communities up and down the coastline. If you’re a Hollywood producer looking to script a new apocalypse movie – forget about computers that disobey their human mastersnuclear-charred badlands or lab experiments that go horribly awry and plunge the world into chaos  – it’s the natural disaster, not the technology disaster, that really scares people these days. As a result, we could be nearing a fundamental, irreversible shift in how we think about science and technology in everyday life: technology is no longer the probem, it's the solution. 

If you’re experimenting with new synthetic life forms on the border of chemistry and biology, this is phenomenal news. If you’re a researcher in artificial intelligence, this is also good news. Think about many of the apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) films from recent years – they tended to focus on the constant potential for technology to create unstoppable chaos. Evil geniuses typically used science and technology to develop new weapons of mass destruction. Technology – especially technology home-grown by greedy corporations - was responsible for everything from mass sterility in the worldto the creation of a worldwide zombie population. Even when science was being used to help humans– it was always the case of technology getting out of control and wreaking havoc.

But let's take a step back. During events like the great Frankenstorm of 2012, we see technology as a tool that we manage, that we’re in control of – and that, most importantly, we can turn “off” whenever we want. In the case of Sandy, it’s the Internet to the rescue, with everything from Google’s Crisis Maps to live tweeting from municipal governments concerned about their citizens’ well-being. And, thanks to the rapid advances in satellite mapping technology, even a “storm of the century” seems to be something that we’re ready for, days (if not weeks) ahead of time. In the past, it seems like the scariest disasters were those that appeared out of nowhere (e.g. "a sudden international storm plunges the planet into a new Ice Age"), giving us no time to act and leading, naturally, to widespread panic. That's inconceivable these days, thanks to technology.

Taking a bigger picture view, all of the core technologies needed to achieve the Singularity are still on track. Every few months, we seem to reach some new breakthrough in artificial intelligence or machine learning, and nobody's bringing up the subject of future HALs. Remember all the controversy over stem cells? Well, we’re now handing out Nobel Prizes to scientists who master the mysteries of cellular reprogrammingWe celebrate scientists like Craig Venter, granting him rock star status. Heck, even nuclear power (once the topic of just about every future apocalypse scenario) is back on the energy horizon, as a way to help out with global warming.

Of course, this is not to say that science and technology are beyond reproach all over the world. There are still blips – like the six Italian scientists who got tossed into prison for failing to predict an earthquake. But perhaps there is the proverbial silver lining in the clouds of Sandy -- as we continue to track the storm with our smartphones and digital devices, upload our real-time storm photos to the Internet and keep in touch with loved ones through social networking, it’s hard to believe in anything even approaching a technology apocalypse.


image: Tornado NYC / Shutterstock


Frankenstorm: Tech Apocalyp...

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