Thursday, March 07, 2002

Living With the Genie

If you've ever done the conference beat at least once, you know it can be a lot of the usual shuffling around a big exhibition hall, sitting through long-winded keynotes and hearing rehashed marketing schpeils masked in panel discussions. But every now and then a conference comes along that makes you sit up and take notice. They're the ones where egos are put aside and real ideas are explained and where panels reach that enlightened state of true discussion about concepts.

Among these conferences are Davos, PC Forum, South by Southwest and one that was in New York this past week-Living With The Genie (LWTG). This conference, which was about "Governing the Scientific and Technological Transformation of Society in the 21st Century" and was produced by Columbia University's Center for Science Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) and The Funders' Working Group on Emerging Technologies (FWGET) is meant to be the most thought-provoking experience for its participants. As CSPO managing director Daniel Sarewitz and FWGET coordinator Christina Desser stated in their welcome remarks they seek to address the question: "is the immense transformational power of new knowledge and innovation governable by society through reflection or choice, or must we accept the contrary, that to a considerable extent this power will always govern us."

Like the other conferences stated above, this one too encourages discussion among participants. There were six featured "conversations" (read panels), none of which were prepared. They were spontaneous explorations of the central themes and were meant to focus and catalyze discussions. Participants were encouraged to "play" in a number of ways:

* Join discussions on issues or themes suggested by Genie participants prior to the conference
* Decide during the conference there is a theme you want to explore and organize your own group
* Join a group that someone else has decided to organize
* Talk to people sitting around you
* Talk with the "roving Genie rapporteurs" (how very Webby Awards of them!)
* Post your ideas to the group via computer terminals in the rotunda

The conference also had two morphologists-the Swedish Defense Ministry's Tom Richey and Maria Stenstrom-who captured ideas and problems presented at the conference. For those of you thinking I just dropped a Captain Kirk term on you, Morphological Analysis is a method for structuring and analyzing complex problems that are not significantly quantifiable and that are characterized by high degrees of non-linearity and uncertainty. These problems often include disparate dimensions thus requiring morphologists to ask "what if..." questions and then to identify and clarify politically and practically feasible alternatives for action. Neat, huh?

And if that wasn't enough, you can continue the discussions for the next six months at either The Rockefeller Foundation, HKH Foundation or Columbia University to meet with others for "follow-on activities."

Well, there was no shortage of brain-enhancing and thought-provoking conversations to choose from, but I participated in Conversation 4: "What do we want from Science and Technology? How do scientific and technological change influence the quality of our lives and mediate our ability to pursue 'the good life'?"

As the participants lounged in comfortable conference-room like chairs that filled the rotunda of Columbia University's Low Library. Small lamp tables with petite vases holding bright yellow daffodils were scattered about the room for coffee cups or bottles of Perrier. Flanking the panelists were two tables with grand beaker-like glass vases with tall, striking pink tulips. A blue lava lamp was illuminated and burbling on the right. If at any moment a participant's energy lagged, they could sneak off to the side and replenish themselves with waters, juices, cookies or fruit.

Conversation 4 was started off by moderator J.M. Kaplan Fund executive director Conn Nugent. The program book described the initial points of discussion: the ways science and technology advance the quality of life (infant mortality) but can also create ethical chaos by blurring the lines between natural and artificial. The question was posed: how can ethical and moral debate be engaged without resorting to what looks like fundamentalism (e.g. creationism)?

Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil also provided a jumping point for the conversation with his thoughts on the tension between advancements in technology that can be used for good and for evil. Advancements in biotechnology can save lives, but in the wrong hands could wipe out masses of humans. Hitler and the al Qaeda used technology. Technologies of the 21st century will be immeasurably more powerful, but as technology continues its accelerating pace, we will also see amazing creativity and constructive applications resulting from human intelligence and technology. "This is the Genie and the conference is about taming the Genie."

"Technology can enhance our human capability. As humans we all have limits. For instance, I want to read 1000s of books, visit 1000s of websites and meet 1000s of people, but I won't be able to in my lifetime." There's only so much we can do.

Discussing the digital divide, Kurzweil pointed out that traditionally technology starts as a very expensive investment, then becomes mid-priced and then is either free or cheap. Areas where he focused on significant developments were nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Kurzweil foresees humans merging with AIs because they'll have intelligence we seek. This is, of course, in contrast to what most Americans would like, if you look at the findings in a poll conducted by The Tarrance Group and Lake, Snell and Perry where 52% Americans reported they believe that research into linking human nerve cells to silicon computers chips to create a part mechanical/part living circuit would harm their quality of life.

The conversation shifted when University of Calgary, Canada research scientist and adjunct assistant professor for Bioethics and International Network on Bioethics and Disability founder and coordinator Gregor Wolbring provided some context on his positioning in the program. His initial comments were on perceptions of disability and if an artificial limb, which looks natural, is superior to a wheelchair, which has the demoralizing expression of being "confined to a wheelchair," while it actually may provide safer and easier mobility.

What are the perceptions of normalcy? "Walking and having a car are viewed as important, because they are based on necessity. These perceptions are driven by 'voices in the universe.' Some voices are stronger and determine perceptions--and science is driven by perceptions." What science/society deem important are areas where development and advancements are made because research will go into those areas. For instance, if walking is important, then research goes into creating artificial limbs to replicate walking, and being in a wheelchair, as mentioned above is viewed as a detriment, so less research might go there.

University of Florida Professor of Religion and American Academy of Religion president Vasudha Narayanan spoke up at this point commenting that she found it "interesting that Gregor doesn't address medical" research. Her view was that "we need to fix society first and then push forward with science. Science will go by itself. It will fix itself. This is the tension." Science and developments in science will catch up to demands society has or needs, based on what society deems important first.

Picking up the society-thread, University of California, Berkeley Professor of Sociology Arlie Hochschild referenced another underlying aspect of Kurzweil's and Wolbring's initial points. She commented on the importance of making sure people who traditionally don't have a voice regarding scientific and technological advancements do. She pointed out how the tech-engine goes faster habitually than culture does, which creates a 'culture lag.' There is a social logic involved in the coalescence of two social logics-Science and Culture. "The headless horseman of science is galloping ahead" leaving culture behind." And now, "in alliance with Business and Profit, which also want to go ahead, there are two headless horsemen. Normal discussions deny this logic but this conference address it."

Going back to Wolbring's points on perception of normalcy, Kurzweil recalled how when he was working on the Linus project, he was working on an application for blind people and reading. While working with a national blind association, he found that they didn't view blindness as a handicap; they viewed it as a characteristic and focused on dealing with practical issues. Blind people, in fact, have been very early adopters of technology and communication; they've gone online since the early days and have applied technology to overcome practical issues.

Unlike the experience Kurzweil observed with the blind people, traditionally, information technology is usually six to eight years till it's adopted in society. In eight years, however, it will only be two to three years from adoption.

Following Kurzweil's adoption-change timeline point, Hochschild went back to the earlier thread on the digital divide and contrasted it. "Sometimes technology starts cheap and gets expensive." Her example was Monsanto and their genetic rice and crops. Originally cheap, when the rice was patented, the price went up.

The whole Monsanto example brought out Narayanan's belief in the curiosity factor of science and that curiosity drives science advancement. However, often times these days, with regulations imposed on scientific advancement, it's not just love of curiosity that lead scientists down certain paths, now it's who's funding it. "My love of curiosity to find things no one else has found is problematic."

"Biotechnology is one area that is experiencing a lot of regulations currently," pointed out Kurzweil. There are "growing dangers in [its] power. We need to address the danger of these inventions with social issues. And yet we have to continue progress because there's still a lot of suffering in the world" that could benefit from such advancements. The primary challenge to the 21st century of human civilization is how to progress but not have these dangers." One way is to develop technological safeguards against things like computer viruses.

Nugent asked, what happens "if law is too slow to keep up with science?" To which Columbia University president George Rupp replied that the laws have been focused in completely the wrong way. His example was related to embryonic stem cell research. Right now the laws don't distinguish between a cell and a fetus, and there needs to be a shift in the definition of an individual before more developments can occur. He "believes science and technology can bring illumination to our relatively unformed scientific norms" that might help with advancing in this volatile area.

Rupp went on to say he also "believes science and technology can help the cultural impasse. Science should be developed integrally with other cultural and social traditions. It's incomprehensible for science to develop without social and cultural influence.

Hochschild added, "is the patent office the new church?" (As in the patent office as the regulatory arm of science much as the church functions in regulating social rules.) And if the biotech companies are the church then what is the function of the church? Going further, she stated 'cultural bubbles' are called professions and ethic committees are created after professions, much like tails are tagged on paper horses (like at birthday parties). So like science gallops forward, patent offices seek to regulate with what they can profit from. And professionals are galloping forward with ethic committees speeding after them to regulate what they are inventing as well.

Going back to the perceptions issue, Wolbring brought up the difference between becoming disabled later in life like Christopher Reeves and being born with a disability. When you are born with it, it's your reality, and you can say "no" to artificial legs. If you buy into the perceptions that if you're 6' tall you can make millions as a basketball star and if you're 4' tall you can't do anything, you must get artificial legs. This is another social cue-dwarfism.

Another area where there is a double standard with technology is in Afghanistan. Sure, the al Qaeda banned cassette players, but they also used technology and bioterriosm to advance their cause.

Kurzweil agreed with Wolbring that just as "war is too important to just leave to the generals, science and technology is too important to leave to the scientists." We need the social influence in it. However, society should not impose its own view on what technologies should be developed but in a free market spirit each member (society, science) participates.

Wolbring asked "What is dignity. What is disability? We have to get a common view." To which Nugent asked, "what do we do if everyone comes up with a different definition?" Hochschild thinks we might agree on 'what is dignity' but then worries that it would be a fig-leaf to give us a go ahead on developing stem cells. "We need to focus on education and instilling ethics in schools first." She cited a story she heard on NPR that an Ethics class at MIT never even discussed ethics the classroom. The professors and guest speakers just came in to talk about 'how to get patents' and 'don't talk to others about your patents once you get them.'

Stemming off into religious discourse, Rupp pointed out that scientist Gordon Conway is trying to steer investments that will be made in science. He then went on to discuss the billions of people who do not acknowledge that we live in symbolic universes. People that live in these religious communities and realize the cultural and historical universe--they can't live within it. They can't settle that these other realities are a part of human community that was created. Kurzweil agreed with this pointing out that the words for God are interpreted in many different ways. We've seen the problems and the dangers of a very literal definition of religion in al Qaeda.

Narayanan remembered that 25 years ago a computer program was created to give horoscopes to children. It didn't replace their belief in astrology, but it was a retooling, repurposing of information using technology as opposed to feeling devastated by it. While science and technology may challenge religious or social beliefs, they don't replace it, they just add color to the definition and offer another reality.

"Don't stop the headless horseman, but let's harness it," stated Rupp. "Religious systems are protean - they change."

Kurzweil ended the discussion with "take our view of what it means to be human--it's the quest for knowledge, change, beautification. The major challenge for the 21st century is changing the definition of what it means to be human. But regarding 9-11, we have to be mindful of the danger of restrictive definitions socially, religiously and technologically.

Religion, society, culture: all their influences on each other, and on science, direct human civilization. Now, on the precipice of such advancements as we've never known before, it is even more vital to be mindful of the impact each has on the other.