Don’t Stop the Signal: A Final Reminder Why Research Matters

Ian Barry
Staff Columnist

Over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of writing on a variety of subjects. Some may have seemed abstruse or esoteric, some banal. But the common point I wished to convey with every article was this: these things matter. Space, scientific research, human augmentation, and yes, even copyright. All these things matter.

The development of science and technology is accelerating at a breakneck pace, and now, more than ever, dictating the shape of our society. Think back to a time before smartphones. Before laptops, before ubiquitous computing and social networking. In a way, it seems almost unthinkable, doesn’t it? All that happened in just the last decade, give or take. Society has changed fundamentally.

And these changes aren’t going to stop. Our technological reach is getting longer every day, growing exponentially by the year. Pretty soon, the human species will have access to a variety of potent and disruptive technologies. Some of them I’ve talked about: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, human augmentation, artificial intelligence. They’re known as “disruptive technologies” because they have the potential to do just that to the status quo. They will not just change society, they will throw it out the window and build a new one from the ground up.

And that is why it’s so important that we begin to prepare for them. That we think about how to handle these tools before they’re accessible. These technologies, if applied correctly, could bring about transformative shifts that would make today’s society look like the dark ages. They could do things we never dared dream were possible. Eliminate hunger, poverty, scarcity. Cure all disease, even take away aging and death. Take us all the way across the galaxy.

Or they could destroy us. A nanoplague, bioweapon, or strong AI with a negligently designed utility function could wipe us out much more efficiently than global warming or terrorism. These technologies are so potent that it would be an act of utter foolishness not to prepare for them. If we’re not ready for them, then by the time we finally lay our hands on them, they very well may consume us. Any technology can be used for good or ill. It’s the user that matters. And in this case, the user is us. All of us.
Which is why I’m asking you to think. That’s what I set out to do with these columns. All I ask is that you consider, even if just for a minute, where we’re going as a planet, as a species. Consider that it’s not any one group or faction who decides how the world develops. It’s all of us, by our words and actions. Consider that these issues exist, that they matter, and that what we sow now by our preparations (or lack thereof) we will reap a hundredfold in the future. And then consider what you want to do about it.

Nothing? I can’t stop you. But I strenuously advise against burying your head in the sand. Ostriches don’t actually do it, and neither should you. But if you want to know more, I suggest looking up the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the writings and publications of Eliezer Yudkowsky and Nick Bostrom. They make a living studying these issues, and are far more qualified to comment on them than I. Even if you choose not to act, at least be aware. These are the issues that will shape our future, and we have to live with the future we create. It’s in our hands.
I’d like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to badger you all with my words. My editor, Katie Tabeling. Our editor-in-chief, Maegan Clearwood, and the rest of The Elm staff. My friends, for putting up with me and helping me as necessary. Julia, for everything. And most of all, thank you for reading.

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