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8 January 2020updated 14 Jan 2020 11:28am

Visions of the technological future

The Astronomer Royal on why artificial intelligence and biotechnology lay the foundations for unimaginable advances in our societies.

By Martin Rees

New technologies such as biotech, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) may offer new solutions to the crises that threaten our crowded world. On the other hand, they may create dangers that could radically destabilise societies through the century. 

These trends will be accelerated over the next decade as such technologies become cheaper and more widespread. In biotechnology, for example, costs have plummeted. In the early 2000s, the first ever sequencing of a human genome cost nearly $3bn; it can now be done for less than $1,000. But with faster and greater insight comes the question of whether we really want to know if we carry genes that give us a propensity to particular diseases.

The ability to cheaply and quickly read genomes also brings the ability to create them. People are often uneasy about innovations that seem to them to be against nature. Heart transplants were once controversial and vaccines, unfortunately, remain so. While redesign of a person’s genome for “enhancement” is still a long way off, this science – along with other advances in medicine and surgery – will intensify numerous ethical issues over the next decade.

Research on ageing is being prioritised. Will the benefits be incremental or is ageing, as some claim, a “disease” that can be cured? Dramatic life-extension would have huge social ramifications. But it may happen, along with human enhancement in other forms, and if these became available only to a privileged elite, they will lead to inequalities of a kind never seen before.

Advances in microbiology – diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics – offer prospects of sustaining health, controlling disease and containing pandemics. But these benefits have already triggered a dangerous counterattack by the pathogens themselves, as bacteria evolve immunity to antibiotics, and diseases such as tuberculosis reappear. And as our understanding of viruses improves, other new dangers emerge. In 2011, two research groups – one in Holland and another in Wisconsin – found that it was surprisingly easy to make the H5N1 influenza virus both more virulent and more transmissible. In 2018, a paper reported the synthesis of the horsepox virus, with the implication that the same could be done with smallpox.

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In contrast to the elaborate and conspicuous special-purpose equipment needed to create a nuclear weapon, biotech involves small-scale, dual-use equipment. We know all too well that technical expertise in people doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. Whatever regulations are imposed on these technologies, they cannot be enforced worldwide any more than drug or tax laws can be.

The other technology that offers both a potentially stupendous breakthrough and significant risk is machine learning. Machines can gain expertise in game playing, recognising faces, translating between languages and managing networks without being programmed in detail.

Integration of AI systems into everyday life could bring great benefits, but the decisions made by machines can be hard to attribute or explain. It is also unlikely that they will work without needing more intrusive access to our whereabouts, our interactions with others, our health and our financial transactions. These data may be used for benign reasons, but their use by technology companies is already shifting power from governments to businesses.

There will be drastic shifts, too, in the nature of work brought about by AI. Machines will perform many tasks, including white-collar jobs ranging from routine legal work and accountancy to coding, medical diagnosis and even surgery. Many professionals will find their hard-earned skills in less demand. In contrast, some skilled service-sector jobs –plumbing and gardening, for instance – require non-routine interactions with the external world and will be among the hardest jobs to automate.

Again, there is a risk here that innovation will lead to deep inequalities. The digital revolution generates enormous wealth for an elite group of innovators and companies, but preserving a healthy society will require redistribution of that wealth. There is talk of using it to provide a universal basic income, although this would be difficult to implement and is not the only method of redistributing wealth.

For a glimpse of what we will value in the future, it may be instructive to look at the spending choices of those who are not financially constrained in the present. The rich value personal service: they employ personal trainers, nannies, butlers and human caregivers. The criterion for governments should be to provide for everyone the kind of support preferred by those who now have the freest choice.

As technology makes some work obsolete, governments will have a responsibility to enhance both the number and status of those with caregiving roles. There are currently far too few of them, and even in wealthy countries they are poorly paid and insecure in their positions.

In both AI and biotechnology, then, there are fields that may be transformative, but it will take firm legal guidelines and political cooperation to ensure they are not exploited to create greater inequality and instability. This is not a fatalistic projection, however. It is cause for optimism. In embracing these technologies, despite their risks, we lay the foundations for unimaginable advances in our societies. 

Martin Rees is the author of “On The Future: Prospects for Humanity”

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran