The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference): Forward
Forward by Charles DeLisi and Kenneth Lewes
Technologies drive change. The printing press, the railroad, the automobile, and the many other technologies that make modern life possible have all, to varying degrees, altered demographic patterns, shifted the distribution of wealth and social caste, and affected the international power balance, influencing our lives as individuals and as a society. In the twentieth century, life itself has been markedly extended by applying the methods of civil engineering to large-scale waste removal and water purification, and biomedical technologies to the search for disease targets and associated therapeutics.
Until recently, the technologies of the modern age have been based largely on the mechanical and electrical properties of matter; they have acted upon the quality and style of life of individuals and societies but have had relatively little effect on human nature.
The twenty-first century will see the emergence and influence of at least two major technologies: computer science and genomics. The one deeply rooted in communication, the physical sciences, and the cognitive sciences; the other emerging from chemistry and biology. The intersection of the two, and each on its own, can have profound consequences not just on the quality of life as we know it, but on the nature of life itself—on its shape and form, on what it means to be human.
The importance of considering the social, political, and economic ramifications of technology is widely recognized, and so-called technology assessment studies are common, if not enlightening. Indeed, the federal government has responded to the genomic revolution by substantially increasing its support for research into the social implications of the new biology.
Although this support has led to important developments in such areas as patents, insurance, privacy, and civil liberties, most prognostications have been rather short-ranged, limited to ten or twenty years. Some of the deepest implications of science, however, are relevant to technologies that are not likely to be viable for several generations. Serious discussion of this longer-range future is uncommon.
Our conference focuses on scientific and technological advances in genetics, computer science, and their convergence during the next 35 to 250 years. We are especially interested in directed evolution, the futures it allows, the shape of society in those futures, and the robustness of human nature against technological change at the level of individuals, groups, and societies.
We take as a premise that biotechnology and computer science will mature and will reinforce one another. During the period of interest, human cloning, germ-line genetic engineering, and an array of reproductive technologies will become feasible and safe. Early in this period, we can reasonably expect the processing power of a laptop computer to exceed the collective processing power of every human brain on the planet; later in the period human/machine interfaces will begin to emerge. Whether such technologies will take hold is not known. But if they do, human evolution is likely to proceed at a greatly accelerated rate; human nature as we know it may change markedly, if it does not disappear altogether, and new intelligent species may well be created. The goal of our symposium is to bring together leading scholars with diverse views from the humanities and the social and natural sciences to reflect on the following:
- The feasibility and safety of technologies related to directed evolution, including but not limited to germ-line gene engineering, human somatic cell cloning, and computer interfaces with the central nervous system;
- The social factors that are likely to affect the adoption of these technologies;
- The consequences of adoption for the individual, the family, the nation, and the world;
- The extent to which we can sensibly discuss the above, and the assumptions we are making in such a discussion.
—Charles DeLisi and Kenneth Lewes
This is a chapter from The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference).
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