The cover of the 25 February issue of Nature magazine asks, “Future generations: what kind of world will we pass on?” Inside is a news feature about “tomorrow’s world.” The editors of the magazine ponder “whether researchers of today consider the world of tomorrow – and why they should.”
“Exponential advances in enabling technologies have reached the point at which they could trigger disruptive change in sectors from artificial intelligence to robotics to medicine,” Nature observes. And what are those enablers? Nature identifies exponential growth in computing power, “really big data,” improvements in communication speed, talking devices, the biology boom, 3D printing, and the rise of robots.
And what will these enablers enable?
Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church predicts, “By 2040, 1 billion people will have their whole genome sequences and get constant updates of their immunomes and microbiomes.”
What about the other 8 billion people who are predicted to be inhabiting Earth by 2040?
Daniela Rus, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT predicts “a world where everybody can have a robot and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life.”
Everybody? What about poor Indian farmers? What about political refugees? What about Bangladeshis flooded out of their homes? What about migrant workers in the U.S.A. and elsewhere? (Agribusiness has been exploiting migrant labor in the U.S.A. for a century, and I’m sorry to say that don’t anticipate our government putting an end to it by 2040.)
And so on.
In the midst of all of this techno-optimism, Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, offers a commentary that begins, “The twin defining challenges of our century are overcoming poverty and managing climate change.”
Right on, Professor Stern.
What’s keeping us from eliminating poverty and managing climate change is not a lack of computing power or robots or super-fast communication. It’s the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, the influence of money on politics, the indifference of big business to prospects for future generations…and so on.
Also in this issue of Nature, Population Council vice president John Bongaarts insists that to solve the problems that Stern identifies, we must “slow down population growth.” He’s right. How to start working on this problem? Educate women and provide access (meaning easy, affordable, or free where necessary) to contraception, he says.
What’s keeping us from getting to work on this problem, I wonder? On one level, it’s lack of political commitment and insufficient funding. On another level, it’s religious and other cultural beliefs that limit or prohibit women’s autonomy.
Speculations about how computers and robots and a faster Internet will improve the lot of humankind are short-sighted. Scientific and technological advancements will continue to benefit, first, the one percent. The U.S. Census Bureau offers all sorts of data about poverty in this country, but I’ll offer just a few tidbits, for perspective.
With the caveat that correlation does not mean causation, here’s a sampling of census data on the percentage of the U.S. population living below 50 percent of the poverty level:
- 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year in office): 4.9 percent.
- 1988 (RR’s last year); 5.2 percent.
- 1992 (G.H.W. Bush’s last year in office): 6.1 percent.
- 2000 (Bill Clinton’s last year in office): 4.5 percent.
- 2008 (G.W. Bush’s last year in office): 5.7 percent.
- 2014 (Obama’s sixth year in office): 6.6 percent.
The worst sort of speculation about the scientifically and technologically advanced future is speculation about human migration to outer space. Talk of “starting anew” and creating off-Earth societies that are free of the problems that plague societies here on Earth is naïve, at best, and disingenuous, at worst.
Neoliberal ideology has played a key role in the transformation of technoscience, including the U.S. civil space program. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for NASA’s costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy for human space flight. Recent presidents and their appointees, advisory groups, and especially various human space flight advocacy groups have explicitly advocated for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies.*
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – dreams of space hotels and off-world colonies are elitist dreams. They have nothing to do with solving the world’s problems, as identified by Stern and Bongaarts.
P.S. – I received a February 16 press release from the Museum of Science Fiction informing me that it, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange, cosponsored a workshop on “homesteading in space.” From the press release – which did not note the date and place of the workshop or the names of participants: “As President Obama observed in his 2015 State of the Union, we want to be ‘pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay.’ Workshop participants discussed the science and technology of space exploration, including mining, nanotechnology, robotics, synthetic astrobiology, habitats, and other related areas…. ‘Just as pioneers on Earth had to live off the land as they traveled to unknown territories, space explorers will need to use resources from asteroids or other planets,” commented Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP.” I continue to be baffled as to why this administration has embraced this kind of thinking.
* See Linda Billings, 2007, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” Chapter 25 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, Eds., Societal Impact of Space Flight (SP-200-4801), NASA History Division, Washington, DC.; and Linda Billings, 2006, Exploration for the masses? Or joyrides for the ultra-rich? Prospects for space tourism, Space Policy 22, summer 2006.