Many people still do not appreciate how fast science and technology (S&T) will change over the next 25 years, and given this rapid development along several different fronts, the possibility of technology growing beyond human control must now be taken seriously, according to a new report.
The State of the Future 2005 report is produced by the United Nations University's Millennium Project - a global think tank of foresight experts, academics and policy makers. It analyses current global trends and examines in detail some of the current and future challenges facing the world.
Setting the scene, the report states: 'Future synergies among nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science can dramatically improve the human condition by increasing the availability of food, energy and water and by connecting people and information anywhere. The effect will be to increase collective intelligence and create value and efficiency while lowering costs.'
However, it warns that 'a previous and troubling finding from the Millennium Project still remains unsolved: although it is increasingly clear that humanity has the resources to address its global challenges, unfortunately it is not increasingly clear how much wisdom, goodwill and intelligence will be focussed on these challenges.'
The report argues that because the factors that caused the acceleration of S&T are themselves accelerating, the rate of change in the past 25 years will appear slow compared to the rate of change in the next 25 years. 'To help the world cope with the acceleration of change, it may be necessary to create an international S&T organisation to arrange the world's science and technology knowledge as well as forecasts of potential consequences in a better Internet-human interface,' it argues.
Taking one particular example - that of nanotechnology - the report predicts that this field will deliver extraordinary benefits for humanity, but warns that little is currently known about the environmental and health risks of nanomaterials. Since the military is currently a major player in the development of nanotechnology, the report proposes military research to help understand and manage these risks.
The most important questions to pursue, according to the report, are: how are nanoparticles absorbed into the body through the skin, lungs, eyes, ears and alimentary canal? Once in the body, can nanoparticles evade natural defences of humans and other animals? What are the potential exposure routes of nanomaterials - both airborne and waterborne? How biodegradable are nanotube-based structures?
The authors suggest that a classification system will be needed to provide a framework within which to make research judgements and keep track of the knowledge regarding potential nanotech pollution. 'Toxicologists and pharmaceutical scientists will have to be brought together to investigate nanoparticles' ability to evade cell defences to target disease,' they add.
Returning to the wider challenges facing humanity, the report notes that national decision makers are rarely trained in the theory and practice of decision making, and argues that advanced decision support software could help. 'Formalized ethics and decision training for decision makers could result in a significant improvement in the quality of global decisions,' it concludes.
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