Technology for the Future

We can currently undertake transplants for eyes, hearts, kidney, pancreas, lungs, liver and the small bowel. Using microsurgery and tissue engineering it is possible to replace hands and feet pr parts of these organs. Given the shortage of organs available for transplant, scientists and many policy makers now consider it inevitable that we will begin to transplant animal organs into humans, providing strict guidelines are followed. Recently, scientists have genetically engineered pigs so as to minimize the chance of organ rejection when their organs are transplanted into human bodies. The breeding of animals just for this purpose so called “horizontal humans” is now taking place. Recently, bladders grown in the laboratory have been successfully implanted in people.

We are also used to artificial hips, knees, legs, arms, hands and other body parts. Advanced engineering and new information processing tools are making it possible to engineer artificial limbs which connect with the nervous system and mimic or improve on the performance of natural organs. Also taking place are systematic attempts to create an artificial organs, such as the pancreas. Tejal Desai of Boston University has built such a pancreas which measures about the size of a five dollar bill. It uses a combination of laboratory grown cells and nanotechnology to function. Others are working on nano-robots (known as nanobots) that will flow in the bloodstream and monitor blood-glucose levels, send instant messages to the artificial pancreas and, when the glucose levels are too high, the pancreas can react in an appropriate way.

Many people are walking around with small computers inside them the pacemaker being a simple example. There are now extremely small computers that have been used to help restore hearing and sight or enable paralyzed persons to interact with computers for speech and other activities. As we understand more about how the brain works, we will expand our ability to engineer technologies to replace biological processes that are failing or have failed using nanocomputers or other “smart” devices. Cyborgs are with us now, there will be many more in years to come.

In terms of our food, it is now possible to process several forms of meat chicken and pork, for example without the need of animals. Using biotechnologies and effective manufacturing, we can “grow” meat on a large scale without the involvement of animals or polluting the environment or losing standards of taste. We can also use genetically modified rice to save lives in Africa or use genetically modified “purificants” to clean polluted water. While some have objected to genetic modification, such objections are usually based on ideology rather than science.

All of these developments provide hope hope for improving the experience of life for many people, of ending hunger and avoiding political conflict over water. There are many other developments too which will change the way we experience the world and do so within the next twenty years. We should encourage and enable all of these developments.

The challenge, however, has nothing to do with the science or technology associated with these developments. It is about the nature of the human condition about the nature of humanity. As we become a combination of technology and biology and as we begin to use technology to deal with diabetes, cancer and ageing what are the implications for society and for our understanding of what it is to be human?

There are three issues. The first is, under what conditions we permit the adoption of technologies which can fundamentally change the biological functioning of a person. The emergent technologies especially genetic technologies which will permit the manipulation of DNA and cells so as to inhibit or cure disease or minimize the possibility of illness will challenge our notions of what it is to be a person. Second, given that some may have implants which give them access to superior intellectual power of supercomputers working a ten million times faster than our own brains, what are the social implications of these developments. Finally, if we use technology to prolong life and people do live to the splendid ages of many forecasts (between 130 and 145 years), how will this impact our already future strained economy?

Systematic foresight is an important activity that we all require be done well so that we can anticipate these issues, engage in the conversation and develop appropriate policy and practice both to make best use of emerging science and technology and to do so in an appropriate and informed way. Canada has no effective foresight mechanisms, has no Institute for Foresight and no systematic training for those whom we should expect to have foresight skills. In the US there are many foresight activities and institutions, but no national foresight process. We need to develop a systematic approach to foresight if we wish to lead rather than follow and if we wish to retain a sense of “ownership” of the future of our own bodies and communities.

The developments in science and technology will not go away if we ignore them. They may in fact be critical to the knowledge economy we need once the oil and gas revenues no longer sustains our prosperity. We need to focus on the issue of how we fast track the development of needed science and technology and we need to both deepen our understanding of the issues we will then face and broaden the involvement of community voices in the debate about the use of science and technology.

The prairies of Canada where I live are so flat one can see the future coming and its coming very fast. Its time to anticipate the future and be proactive, rather than let the future be something we have to react to.