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About the Author

E. William Colglazier is the editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy.

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Science and Technology Foresight

Science and technology are moving incredibly fast.  The new developments that emerge from this accelerating scientific revolution spread rapidly around the world, offering unprecedented opportunities for humankind. Most politicians and diplomats now realize that these innovations can also disrupt societies and create new challenges for governance. Yet trying to predict the future is quite like a fool’s errand. Scientists are not much better than anyone else at prognosticating for the years ahead. Only the most talented science fiction writers come close to imagining what the future might hold.

If approached with a healthy degree of humility and skepticism, however, science and technology foresight can become an important tool in trying to envision what the fast-moving trends in the scientific revolution might imply for our species and planet.  Following are three cases involving serious scientific and technological foresight. Each has been cast with a different time line looking to the future, and each includes examination and speculation on a range of implications for society. The intent is not to predict the future, but to better understand what appears to be possible, what scenarios might ensue, and what potential positive and negative outcomes need to be considered today.

1.  Gene Editing

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a report in February 2017 entitled Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.1 This study looks to the next few years, and the focus is primarily on ethical concerns and oversight regulations for research and clinical trials involving genome editing of human somatic or germ-line cells. The chapter on basic research emphasizes the remarkable advance represented by CRISPR/Cas9 for genome editing on a range of biological species. As is now well-understood, these advances have according to the report “revolutionized the science of gene and genome editing, and the basic science is advancing extremely rapidly.”

While stringent criteria for clinical trials of human germ-line modification for treating or preventing serious genetic diseases are recommended, the report also discusses the many ethical and cultural concerns and public attitudes regarding intervention in the human genome. The potential use for nondisease enhancements in contrast to therapies is discussed, and the fear of eugenics is raised. It is clear that the main issues are now these ethical concerns regarding what society might permit. The scientific capabilities have advanced so far that the technical ability to edit the genome of all species has already arrived. As the report emphasizes, the time for public discussion and policy debate is upon us.

2. Artificial Intelligence

The One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, endowed at Stanford University, examines AI and its effects on people and society. For this study, a committee of leading academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines is appointed every five years to provide an update addressing developments, long-term possibilities, and legal and ethical concerns. The most recent effort appeared in September 2016—Artificial Intelligence and Life in 20302—with a focus on impacts on large urban areas and specifically a typical North American city. The study committee examined eight domains: transportation; service robots; healthcare; education; low-resource communities; public safety and security; employment and workplace; and entertainment.

The study envisions that “increasingly useful applications of AI, with potentially profound positive impacts on our society and economy are likely to emerge between now and 2030.” Innovations in computer-based vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing have driven these developments in AI, especially when combined with the rise of the digital economy and advances in machine learning. Autonomous transportation options will soon be available, affecting the organization of cities. Home/service robots and AI-based applications for healthcare are being aggressively pursued by industry, as are applications in education, entertainment, and public safety and security.

At the same time, these innovations will “spur disruptions in how human labor is augmented or replaced by AI, creating new challenges for the economy and society more broadly.” The displacement of jobs by AI and robotics is already a serious issue for advanced countries. Automation has affected employment in some industrial sectors. As a consequence, the developed world is facing destabilizing political shifts and challenges to an international trade system that has helped reduce poverty in many developing countries. 

Like the gene editing study, this one sees rapid technological developments that make it imperative for societies to begin “a vigorous and informed” public discussion and debate examining the policy, ethical, and economic issues associated with AI.

3. Global Trends

Every four years, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) produces an unclassified report in its Global Trends series that is issued right after the U.S. presidential election. The most recent report, entitled Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, appeared in January 2017.3 This exercise is much broader than one of science and technology foresight in that it attempts to evaluate the factors that will shape the world over the next twenty years. Long-term thinking—reexamining “key assumptions, expectations, and uncertainties”—is viewed by the NIC as “critical to framing strategy.”

Much of this latest report appears quite pessimistic. The expectation is for rising tensions within and between countries amid an era of slow growth, declining U.S. dominance, climate change, and challenges to an international rules-based order.  “Technology-induced disruptions in job markets” are seen as “driving tensions within countries in the years to come, fueling the very nationalism that contributes to tensions between countries.” 

This edition paints a bleaker picture than Global Trends 2030, which was released in December 2012.  That report saw significant trends in individual empowerment coming from new technologies, the growth of the middle class and decline in poverty in developing countries, and the opportunities represented by rapid urbanization occurring nearly everywhere.

Technology, for its part, is seen in the newest report as unleashing both positive and negative outcomes. The report quotes one expert saying that “technology is the greatest cause for my optimism about the future...and my greatest cause for pessimism.” The chapter on technologies addresses the standard litany: advanced information communications technologies, including AI, automation, and robotics; biotechnologies and advanced human health technologies; energy and climate intervention technologies; advanced materials and manufacturing technologies; and space-based technologies.

Yet the report ends on a comparatively optimistic note. The scenarios that have been investigated, it explains, show potential opportunities through building “resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty.” The report also points to two UN initiatives—the 2030 Agenda, with its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change—as promoting “broad strategic goals to be pursued through cooperation between governments and public-private partnerships.” As is always the case, our choices will ultimately determine our future.

The takeaway from these studies is that scientific and technological foresight is no longer just an interesting academic exercise. Rather, it is an imperative for intelligence agencies and foreign ministries everywhere. Last year, Vaughan Turekian, science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state, initiated at the request of the deputy secretary a series of dialogues for top diplomats with leading scientists and technologists on developments in rapidly advancing fields such as gene editing and AI. The purpose is to anticipate possible impacts on societies around the world and options for diplomacy. These types of dialogues are essential in trying to understand potential outcomes of the S&T revolution that diplomats must consider today.

 

 

Endnotes


  1. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2017), https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24623/human-genome-editing-science-ethics-and-governance.
  2. Peter Stone et al. Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016), https://ai100.stanford.edu/2016-report.
  3. National Intelligence Council, Global Trends: Paradox of Progress (NIC, January 2017), https://www.dni.gov/index.php/about/organization/national-intelligence-council-global-trends.