Later this week (Feb. 3 & 4, 2011), an imaginative discussion about society, emerging technologies, and the role of government, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future, will take place at Google’s Washington, DC, headquarters. The event (one of a series dubbed ‘Future Tense’) is the result of a partnership between Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine. Not surprisingly Slate has an article about the event but it’s written by Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction novelist and it’s not about the event per se. From the Slate article, The Purpose of Science Fiction; How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology,
… science-fiction writers explore these issues in ways that working scientists simply can’t. Some years ago, for a documentary for Discovery Channel Canada, I interviewed neurobiologist Joe Tsien, who had created superintelligent mice in his lab at Princeton—something he freely spoke about when the cameras were off. But as soon as we started rolling, and I asked him about the creation of smarter mice, he made a “cut” gesture. “We can talk about the mice having better memories but not about them being smarter. The public will be all over me if they think we’re making animals more intelligent.”
But science-fiction writers do get to talk about the real meaning of research. We’re not beholden to skittish funding bodies and so are free to speculate about the full range of impacts that new technologies might have—not just the upsides but the downsides, too. And we always look at the human impact rather than couching research in vague, nonthreatening terms.
That bit about ‘smarter mice’ is related to the issue I was discussing in regard to PBS’s Nova Series: Making Stuff and their approach to transgenic goats (my Jan. 21, 2011 posting). Many people are distressed by this notion of crossing boundaries and ‘playing God’ to the point where discussion is rendered difficult if not impossible.The ‘smarter mice’ issue points to a related problem in that people find some boundaries more acceptable to cross than others.
Sawyer’s point about science fiction being a means of holding the discussion is well taken. He will be presenting at this week’s ‘Dragons’ event. Here’s more about it,
Maps in the old days often included depictions of sea dragons or lions to connote unknown or dangerous terrain. Unfortunately, when it comes to a future that will be altered in unimaginable ways by emerging technologies, society and government cannot simply lay down a “Here Be Dragons” marker with a fanciful illustration to signal that most of us have no clue.
How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?
Synthetic biology, with its potential to engineer and manipulate living organisms, and the Internet, which continues to alter how we live and relate to each other, offer two compelling cases in point.
Future Tense is convening at Google DC a number of leading scientists, Internet thinkers, governance experts and science fiction writers to grapple with the challenge of governing an unchartered future.
One last thought, I am curious about the fact that the ‘Dragons’ event is being held at a Google headquarters yet Google is not a sponsor, a host, or a partner.