Let's Debate the Future, Please!

April 28 2008 / by juldrich / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 10 Hot

By Jack Uldrich

(An opinion piece)

Cross-posted from jumpthecurve

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, recently had a thoughtful opinion piece bemoaning the media’s lack of meaningful coverage of today’s important issues. To emphasize her point, she noted that many American’s can now tell you Barack Obama’s bowling score but can’t recite one major plank in his health care plan.

It is a valid criticism and I wholeheartedly agree with her critique but Edwards, the candidates, and the media are missing another serious issue – the accelerating pace of science and technological change.

More specifically, no candidate is approaching today’s important issues of health care, education, the environment and war from the perspective that the near-term future of all of these issues will almost certainly will be different – and perhaps radically so – because of the accelerating pace of technological change.

Let me provide just a few recent examples. Late last year, the Pentagon reported that it had begun arming robots with guns for the first time ever. It then announced, to little fanfare, that it intended to triple the number of robots in battlefield situations by 2010. And by 2015 – a date that would place it near the end of the next president’s second term – the Defense Department has publicly stated that it expects one-third of the U.S. fight force to consist of robots. (cont.)

If this holds true, it will be a shift of historic proportions and it would be helpful to have the three remaining would-be commanders-in-chief explain their thinking on the morality of machines making life-and-death decisions and, more broadly, whether they think the wide-scale use of robots might lead to more or fewer wars.

Earlier this year another scientific advance with profound public policy implications was announced when a handful of publications touted the remarkable amount of progress scientists are making in creating artificial life forms. According to the reports, most experts now agree that it is reasonable to expect a breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology within the next three to 10 years. One scientist was even quoted as saying “We’re talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways.”

To my way of thinking, anything that can change our world in “pretty fundamental ways” is appropriate fodder for discussion during a presidential campaign. These synthetic life forms are purported to be capable of wonderful things like fighting disease and efficiently creating new forms of clean, sustainable energy. However, they might also be used for more nefarious purposes. At a minimum, it would be helpful to hear how those now wishing to lead this country think about this issue and whether they want to boldly lead us into this brave new world or, alternatively, whether they want to prevent scientists from even attempting to explore synthetic biology’s potential.

In the field of health care, the advances are no else astounding. Earlier this week, a company announced that it had identified two new genes closely linked with breast cancer. If true, the test could be a godsend for some of the 180,000 women who are expected be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Along with the scores of other such genetic tests now under development for a variety of other diseases, the field of genomics could revolutionize both the practice and the economics of health care.

Of course, such advances are just one field that will fundamentally alter health care in the coming decade. Stem cell research, biotechnology and nanotechnology – a field that the director of the National Cancer Institute has publicly said might “help eliminate the suffering and death from cancer by 2015” – are also all advancing at near a near exponential rate.

Finally, hardly a day seems to go by without some new advance being touted in the field of computers, Internet technology, voice recognition software, or the development of new immersive virtual reality and social networking technologies. It is not much of a stretch to think that these advances will deeply alter the educational environment of the future. Yet instead of hearing a word about how any of these new tools might transform education, all too often we are offered only stale platitudes about an issue which nearly everyone should be at or near the top of their agenda.

Maddeningly, though, the candidates seem oblivious to all of the aforementioned advances. As such, they are doing nothing to prepare the public for either the exciting opportunities or difficult challenges that these advances portend.

Not all of the blame for failing to address the future can be laid at the feet of the candidates. Few in the media attempt to pose thoughtful questions along these lines and most citizens are more naturally concerned with more immediate issues that confront them on a daily basis.

Alas, these are merely excuses. The truest test of leadership is a person’s ability to articulate a positive vision for the future and then move people toward action that helps turn that vision into reality.

Therefore, if the candidates or the media aren’t going to rise to the challenge it is incumbent upon those of us who believe these issues are critical to our future to take action.

To this end, I would invite all readers who feel this way to sign on as a supporter of ScienceDebate2008 – an organization dedicated to trying hold a debate about scientific and technological challenges that face this country.

Moreover, I would urge like-minded individuals to begin speaking up about these issues. If our leaders won’t lead us then it is incumbent upon us who see a better future to create an environment where our leaders can at least follow.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. Excellent post. The race is on between spreading the acceleration meme and the cold hard slap in the face awaiting those slow on the uptake. This will be the last election that does not highlight this critical issue.

    Posted by: Field of Memes   April 29, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  2. There’s always hope that technology and accelerating change will become a national issue when the Dems and Republicans square off and all of the gloves come off. It’s possible that the Dems have purposely avoided certain issues so as not to weaken their positions in a Red vs. Blue state election where progress and tech could become a real issue. We should also consider the likelihood of catalytic events that could shift the election focus to accelerating change, such as a deeper recession, further reduction in the value of the dollar, $5.00 oil, or something more surprising.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   April 29, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  3. OK people, if you didn’t figure that out yet, politicians only talk about things that will score them some points with the electorate. Talking about accelerating change and singularity will score them as many points as admission of UFO sighting did for Dennis Kucinich.

    Posted by: johnfrink   April 29, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend