Photo via George Skidmore/Flickr
Two weeks ago, the National Academy of Sciences, a council of highly respected scientists, lent their support to manipulating the genes of humans in very limited circumstances. Later that week, the Senate approved Scott Pruitt, a man who doubts the legitimacy of climate change, to head the EPA. In November, we elected Donald Trump, a man who has asserted that climate change is Chinese hoax. The next month, the White House published a study that predicted artificial intelligence could wipe out over three million jobs in the trucking industry. On the cusp of scientific breakthroughs that will fundamentally reshape our society, the public discourse on scientific issues has been centered around three issues: climate change, evolution, and vaccines. These are topics on which the scientific community is in near-unanimous agreement. If our public discourse remains stalled on the existence of climate change, the merits of vaccines, and questions over evolution, we will fail to talk about breakthroughs that are poised to fundamentally alter our society and the entire world.
The first breakthrough has to do with technology that easily facilitates editing the genes of both humans and animals. In 2012, scientists developed a technique called Crispr-Cas9 that makes it relatively easy to tweak a specific gene sequence with unprecedented precision. This opens up a whole range of possibilities in genetic engineering. The technology could be applied to eradicate horrific diseases and disabilities, ranging from cancer to blindness. The National Academy of Sciences’ report supports using the technique to get rid of a limited range of genetic afflictions. However, the technology could also be applied to modify children for desired traits like strength, beauty, and height. Some even fear Crispr being used to create super-soldiers. Others worry that even positive uses of Crispr, like eradicating diseases, will disproportionately benefit the wealthy and create genetic inequality of a dystopian variety, because such treatments are likely to be expensive.
Overall, Crispr-Cas9 raises profound ethical and philosophical questions that we must grapple with and debate as a country. Should we manipulate human and animal genes? If so, in what circumstances? Who should regulate this? A bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin and a leader of the National Academy of Sciences’ report, R. Alta Charo, noted, “It is essential for public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications [of Crispr-Cas9].”
The other groundbreaking technological development has to do with artificial intelligence (AI). This section will focus specifically on AI’s impact on the transportation industry and the consequent disruption of the labor market, but remember that breakthroughs in AI pose a variety of problems and affect diverse fields beyond just the labor market. Over the past few years, progress in AI has resulted in the commercial viability of self-driving vehicles. In the coming years, self-driving vehicles will absolutely become a reality. For example, a San Francisco based company called Otto, recently purchased by Uber for 680 million dollars, is on the forefront of self-driving trucks. They hope to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road within the next couple years. Other companies have followed suit and by 2019, self-driving cars are expected to be on the roads in a commercial capacity (many are currently being tested on the roads).
This technology will undoubtedly save lives. Last year, 40,200 people died in traffic accidents, a six percent increase from 2015. With AI, the death toll is expected to decrease. However, the news is not entirely positive, as research indicates that developments in AI will fundamentally alter the labor market. The White House released two studies in October and November of 2016 that investigated the economic toll of self-driving cars. The report noted that current research indicated that over the next decade or two, millions of jobs will be lost. Conservative estimates posit that around nine percent of jobs will be lost, while studies from Oxford University estimate that almost 47 percent of jobs will be threatened by AI. Unlike the first industrial revolution, which benefited unskilled laborers to the detriment of skilled workers, this revolution will adversely affect the lesser skilled and lesser educated segments of society.
While economic production may increase and roads will become safer, many people’s livelihoods are threatened. This technological progress raises questions about the role of government and how our society is structured. How should society accommodate those affected by the changing labor market? How can we retrain workers to compete in a new economy? Should we allocate funds to educate workers for a more technology based economy? Should the government be more concerned with trade deals or policies meant to combat technological developments? Moreover, how should the self-driving car market be regulated?
Participating in the discussions necessitated by gene editing technology and AI does not require a nuanced understanding of science. I am a history major who hardly understands the specifics of Crispr or the technical aspects of self-driving cars. However, as a citizen of the 21st century, my opinion on these topics still matters. These topics are just the tip of the iceberg. Science and technology are progressing at a breakneck speed, and many other developments will shape our society. Instead of debating climate change or evolution, we should move onto more interesting and pressing topics. Even if the public fails to grapple with these issues, science will keep progressing. It is better to interact with these questions now, before we start feeling the effects of developments with which we failed to reckon.