December 4, 2010

Wendell Wallach: "Navigating the Future: Managing the Combinatorial Impact of Emerging Technologies" [transforming humanity conference]

Wendell Wallach presenting, "Navigating the Future: Managing the Combinatorial Impact of Emerging Technologies." Wallach is the author of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong. Check out his blog.

How will we navigate the promise and perils of emerging technologies that enhance human capacities?

Less than 200 years ago our ancestors were provincial, superstitious, unsanitary, unscientific, and filled with racial, sexual and class prejudices. So much has clearly changed since then.

Germ and sanitation revolutions: invisible agents transmit disease; washing hands; waste treatment and water purification; hygiene; life expectancy: 1850 - men 38.3, women 40.5; 2007 - 78 years. Basically a doubling in life expectancy.

Tech revolution: regenerative medicine, genetic engineering, synbio and AL, nano, neuroprosthetics, neuropharma, data mining, AI, convergent technologies.

Convergent technologies: involving the synergistic (and often unpredictable) implications.

Are we inventing the human species as we have known it out of existence?

Existing policy mechanisms: Laws and regulations, Professional codes of ethics, Research ethics, lab practices and procedures, etc.

Collectively, this has been a robust series of protections. Grounds for criticism: funding for oversight, hamper productivity, piecemeal.

Time: The pace of scientific discovery: Central issue for determining the adequacy of exiting oversight mechanisms: Exponential growth; scholarly community: more skeptical; unfulfilled predictions; complexity thwarts easy progress; tremendous confusion: mediating - incredibly difficult; generational differences.

Existential risks: Two kinds:
(1) Speculative threats: designer pathogens, grey goo, robot takeovers.
(2) Alterations in human nature, character or presentation.

How do existential risks play in public policy?

Short of a clearcut danger or crisis. We've got periodic mini-crises - public education, work through issues, etc.

In a democratic society the public should give at least tacit approval to the futures it is creating. But can the future be predicted?

The middle area: Combinatorial impact: Life extension; mixing cognitive enhancers; cyborg soldiers.

Re: cybog soliders: Biomarkers/Screening/Resilience - polymorphisms of FKBP5 gene (Binder et al) + childhood abuse, etc. seems to be indicative of low resilience. Screening techniques: Warrior class, profile required for high risk occupations, social engineering (new forms of discrimination, PSTD: long-term suffering, costs). It is ethical to send someone to the frontline who has a genetic propensity for PSTD?

Assessing risks: Need a mechanism for evaluating when thresholds that hold dangers have or are about to be crossed. We need a new credible vehicle for monitoring and tracking impacts of emerging technologies. Think tank? Agency?  Easier said than done, because who will take it seriously? First step: experts workshops, which are credible and apply the Danish model (use a small group of the public which represent the larger group).

Pieces: Foresight and planning (anticipatory ethics, forward engagement); potential massive combinatorial impact; TechCast; etc.

Related issues for experts workshops: adequacy of existing policy mechanisms, public education, reports, monitoring, etc.

With proper attention the time available for creative action expands.

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