In This Issue
The Vertiginous March of Technology
March 1, 2000 Volume 30 Issue 1

Balance! (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

We have reached a critical point in the vertiginous march of technology. In the space of a few decades, what were only fantasies or science fiction have begun to become reality, from humans walking on the Moon to machines replacing diseased organs to engineered modifications of life. These engineering and scientific triumphs, immense as they are, are but embryos of what human ingenuity and organization undoubtedly will be able to do in the future. Yet, the very thought of what these future developments may portend for our species is also engendering concerns -- not only among a general public not versed in engineering and science, but also among engineers and scientists.

In a recent article, Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, wrote that he sees our future as one in which "our most powerful twenty-first century technologies -- robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech -- are threatening to make humans an endangered species" (Wired 8.04). His concern is but the latest chapter in a series that has its beginnings in the unfathomable depths of our sentient past. The Greeks of the classical age bemoaned the disappearance of a mythical golden age of peace and harmony between gods -- the source of all that was good -- and humans. At the end of the first millennium of the common era, Europe feared the end of the world and the advent of the final judgement. The massacres of World War I destroyed the optimism that had stemmed from the enormous technological progress of the previous hundred years. In World War II, Oppenheim and some other creators of the atom bomb -- a few still with us -- recoiled from the stupendous force they had unleashed. But, if Bill Joy’s concerns are not new, they address new, powerful, and pervasive technologies. Engineers should not dismiss them lightly, or ignore the reasons behind the recurring sense of foreboding that continues to accompany some technological and scientific advances. To be sure, only a small minority of our species harbor that sense -- but also, to be sure, only a minority view the future without ever removing their rose-colored glasses.

Engineers, by definition, are creators of machines and modifiers of nature. These two tasks are so heady, and today’s engineering achievements would have appeared so godlike to humans of earlier societies, that the temptations of technological determinism -- of the "if it can be done, it shall be done" -- are real. It is the danger of these temptations, quite evident in the development of nuclear weapons, that is at the root of today’s fears about the future of our species.

Even aside from the threat of weapons of mass destruction, there are new worries about long-term threats to our survival caused by the accelerated depletion of natural resources, our stressed ways of life, injuries to the environment, and the destruction of other species. These, in different ways, are concerns of citizens of an affluent society just as much as of those of a poorer one.

But the avoidance of technological determinism and the amelioration of the human condition demand the intelligent societal use of technology, not the proscribing of scientific and technological advances. The consequences of today’s engineering achievements are far from unidirectional or preordained. The reversal of trends -- exemplified by the reduction of noxious car emissions, by the cleaning of rivers, and by the efforts in international arms control -- are good beginnings, even if still too limited, even if we continue to drive gas guzzlers or sell weapons.

Thus, if, on the one hand, one can always hypothesize terrifying catastrophes, on the other hand one must also reflect upon the enormous enhancement of our humanity that engineering has made and will continue to make possible. The nations caught in the maelstroms of World War I and World War II recovered quite fast, and no nuclear weapon has been exploded in anger since Nagasaki. The free market industrial nations have enjoyed enormous increases in life expectancies and living standards thanks to new infrastructures, new industries, and new technologies. And, for the first time since the beginning of life on Earth, a living organism -- man -- can evade the prison of Earth’s gravity and the tyranny of evolution, and is not trapped by geography, having learned to communicate all over the globe.

These enhancements of our biological reach and our society are the yin of promise to the yang of fear of technology. Clearly, the promise is far from being universally believed, when half of humankind is still denied even the simplest benefit of technology, from food to housing, to sanitation, to health. But still that half hopes for advances that will improve its lot, advances that can only come from being able to receive the benefits of technology, and from being able to participate in the global economy that makes the other half affluent. There is a profound difference between the hope that says "we need more and better technology that is better distributed," and the fear that says "stop."

The hope to improve the lot of the poorer half of the world lies squarely in making available to them the fruits of technology, in having new technologies bypass older ones that would be impossibly costly or inadequate. The hope for all, affluent and poor alike, should be for technologies that will free humans from degrading and dangerous work, that will create new jobs and make possible better distribution systems for food and services. And the hope should be for the development of a global hyperintelligence through the combined prowess of individuals, societies, and machines that would stamp out the foolishness of today’s conflicts and extend to every human being the fruits of the creativity of engineers. Those fruits go beyond the material, the tangible, as they make possible a new vision of what it means to be human.

These are not utopian but real possibilities that depend first and foremost on engineers holding a balanced view of the promise -- as well as of the pitfalls -- of technology. To be sure, there is no certainty, but this is not a reason for engineering to retreat.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor, Polytechnic University, and interim editor-in-chief of The Bridge.