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Top 6 fears about future technology
Many of our greatest fears stem from uncertainty about the future, and technology has made the future very uncertain indeed.
- Americans are scared, but hardly alone; people are primed by evolution to worry over their inability to control their future environment.
- Oxford professor Nick Bostrom has painted a doomsday scenario. Are he and Elon Musk correct?
- Even if these six fears come to pass—and some of them surely will—they aren't guaranteed to be as catastrophic as we think. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are incredibly bad at predicting the future.
The future is a scary place. According to a 2017 survey, many Americans' greatest fears—economic collapse, another world war, not having enough money for the future, etc.—are concerns over the state of tomorrow. (Although it is worth noting that their number one fear, corrupt government officials, is a clear and ever-present danger.)
Americans are hardly alone. People are primed to worry over their inability to control their future environment. Tomorrow's unpredictability requires that our brains view it with suspicion, as a potential threat to our survival. Unfortunately for our survival-primed brains, technology's influence is making our future ever more protean.Today's technological advancements occur exponentially, and the average person will have to adjust to changes that would have previously taken several generations. Many of these advancements will, no doubt, be beneficial. Others, however, could prove less than advantageous.
Elon Musk speaks onstage at SXSW 2018 in Austin, Texas. During the conversation, Musk shared his fears over the future of AI.
(Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW)
Imagine a paperclip company creates an artificial superintelligence and tasks it with the single goal of making as many paperclips as possible. The company's stock soars, and humanity enters the golden age of the paperclip.
But something unexpected happens. The AI surveys the natural resources we need to survive and decides those could go a long way toward paperclip manufacturing. It consumes those resources in an effort to fulfill its prime directive, "make as many paperclips as possible," and wipes out humanity in the process.
This thought experiment, devised by Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, details just one potential danger in creating an artificial superintelligence—that being, we need to be very careful with our words.
"I'm very close to the cutting-edge of AI, and it scares the hell out of me," Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, said at SXSW 2018. "It is capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential. […] We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity. I think that's the single biggest exponential crisis that we face."Bostrom and Musk paint worst-case scenarios, but there are plenty of worries over artificial superintelligence that don't end in human genocide. Experts have postulated that AI could automate terrorism, mass produce propaganda, and streamline hacking to devastating effects.
Americans have steadily been losing work to automation for decades, but the trend appears to be picking up speed. Self-driving cars, for example, could soon displace 5 million workers nationwide.
But taxi drivers aren't the only people who should be worried. A McKinsey Global Institute study suggests that nearly 70 million people could lose their jobs to automation by 2030. U.S. workers in retail, agriculture, manufacturing, and food services may find their jobs on the automated chopping block.No wonder Americans fear the incoming robo-revolution. A Pew Research report found that 72 percent of U.S. adults surveyed expressed worry over automation, compared with 33 percent who were enthusiastic. A majority were also hesitant to consider using automated services such as driverless cars or robotic caregivers.
We create robots to fight our wars for us, but they turn on their masters and bring ruin to our world. It's a classic science fiction conceit, and one we're much closer to than, say, first contact. Autonomous drones are already available, and it is only a matter of time before they make the leap from selfie-machine to combatant.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots worries about this future, but not about robotic warriors turning on their masters. Rather, the campaign believes that autonomous weapons will lead to an erosion of accountability in armed conflicts between states.
As stated on the campaign's website:
The use of fully autonomous weapons would create an accountability gap as there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for a robot's actions: the commander, programmer, manufacture, or robot itself? Without accountability, these parties would have less incentive to ensure robots did not endanger civilians and victims would be left unsatisfied that someone was punished for the harm they experienced.
Considering the difficulties already associated with prosecuting war crimes, the concern is worth consideration.
Vicious virtual reality
A group of children wearing virtual reality headsets.
(Photo by Getty Images)
Virtual reality is here, and it looks way better than the '80s led us to believe it would. But as with any new technology, trepidation has welled up over to how it will affect people's wellbeing, especially children.
"The gap between 'things that happen to my character' and 'things that happen to me' is bridged," Scott Stephen, a VR designer, told The New Yorker. "The way I process these scares is not through the eyes of a person using their critical media-viewing faculty but through eyes of I, the self, with all of the very human, systems-level, subconscious voodoo that comes along with that."Because the technology's availability has been limited until recently, not many studies that have looked at VR's effects on children, and the studies we have aren't conclusive. One study showed that children were more likely to create a false memory under VR's influence, but another study has shown its ability to reduce anxiety in children undergoing medical procedures.
Baleful biomedical technologies
In the coming years, we could cultivate biomaterials in labs to replace failing organs and splice genes in utero so children won't suffer the debilitating inherited diseases of their forebearers. Biomedical technologies promise a future where we are all better, stronger, faster and at the fraction of the cost of one Steve Austin.
But a 2016 Pew Research report suggests that Americans don't see these medical advancements as incoming miracles. Of those surveyed, a majority said they were either somewhat or very worried about brain chips that make us smarter (69 percent), genetic editing to reduce babies' risk of disease (68 percent), and synthetic blood to improve physical abilities (63 percent).
Their reasoning? Such enhancements "could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots" and be used as a measure of superiority by their recipients. The more religious a participant, the more likely they were to believe such technologies were "meddling with nature" and "crosses a line we should not cross." Mostly though, we just loathe the idea of neighbors throwing a get-together to show off their fancy new brain chips.
Wholesale nuclear power
The ghost town of Pripyat, Ukraine, with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the background.
(Photo by MediaProduction/Getty Images)
On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Since then, nuclear weapons have been an existential threat to our species. As of Jan. 2018, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock at a mere two minutes to midnight.
But weapons of mass destruction aren't why nuclear made this list. It's here because of people dread nuclear energy.
In a 2016 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans surveyed (54 percent) were opposed to nuclear energy, the first time a majority opposed the prospect since 1994, when Gallup first started asking the question. Of course, it's not hard to where the fear originates. When nuclear power plants fail, they fail with devastating consequences. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, the list is longer than we'd like.
But some experts argue that we need nuclear energy to decarbonize quickly enough to avert major climate catastrophe. Not only does nuclear power produce immense amounts of energy, it also has a low-carbon footprint (lower than even solar)."In most of the world, especially the rich world, they're not talking about building new reactors. We're actually talking about taking reactors down before their lifetimes are over," Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, said during his TED talk. "[The United States] could lose half of our reactors over the next 15 years, which would wipe out 40 percent of the emissions reductions we're supposed to get under the Clean Power Plan."
A cloudy crystal ball
So, is the future a technological murder mansion, a place where every dark corner hides a robotic horror waiting to kill all humans or, at the very least, take all our jobs? Maybe, but probably not.
People have a strong desire to predict the course of tomorrow, and whole social movements, from futurists to psychics to horoscopes, have sprung up to meet that demand. Such conjectures return to us a semblance of control with regards to our future environment.
To pick a few well-known examples: In the late 18th century Thomas Malthus argued that unless family size was regulated, humanity would overpopulate the planet and create a misery of famine. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama foresaw the end of history. And in 1998 the Y2K bug was predicted to wipe out computer networks across the world.
But Malthus couldn't predict the technological advancements in agriculture that could feed billions more people than existed in his day; Fukuyama could not foresee the political upheaval of events such as 9/11; and Y2K doomsayers, well, they were just wrong.
Even if these six fears come to pass — and some of them surely will — they aren't guaranteed to be as bad as predicted. Automation could wipe out 70 million jobs, but new innovations could generate new jobs needing to be filled. Biomedical technologies could widen the expanding gap between classes, but if treat them as reconstructive procedures, rather than aesthetic ones, then everyone should have a right to benefit.
That makes you feel better about the future… right?
- Feeling AI Anxiety? 41% of Americans Fear Getting Replaced by Tech ›
- Y2K: What did we learn from history’s biggest tech scare? - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.