What is technology for?
(Foreword to Using Emerging Technologies to Address Global Risks , October 2011)
This is a question that often comes up in our dealings with global policy makers who spend huge sums on scientific research while simultaneously being fearful of its consequences. Many believe that it is somehow important for the economy in an undefined and non-quantifiable manner, or that it is some kind of logical next step along the path that starts with scientific curiosity. Perhaps a better way of viewing technology would be as a mechanism through which science is applied to meet the needs of society, and that holds true whether the needs of society are getting rich quick, curing cancer, or both.
But there is another less beneficial view of technology. The idea that technology is responsible for environmental degradation, especially when coupled with population growth, is a powerful one that has held true since the industrial revolution. It is human nature to fondly imagine an agrarian pre-industrial utopia, while forgetting the regular plagues and famines that resulted in an average life expectancy of 35 years in pre-industrial Britain. The idea that technology is a bad thing is a situation that has existed for much of the 20th century and persists into the 21st, partly as a result of confusion between technology itself and those individuals and corporations who control and exploit it.
But it is time for a change. In fact a change is inevitable. Human history is littered with technological advances that have changed everything, and much faster than anyone could have imagined. The agricultural, industrial and information revolutions have resulted in massive changes to the economy, society and the way in which we interact with the environment.
Since the second world war, science and technology have moved faster and had a more profound impact on human society than at any other point in human history. We have moved from black and white television exploding onto the market in the early 1950s to more than 800 million people using Facebook within 60 years. While television took 3 decades to diffuse around the world, Facebook did it in 3 years. Technology has driven economic growth around the world and led to vast improvements in the quality of life for much of the global population, but it has come at a price: the rise of consumerism has resulted in environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale.
It is time to reappraise our relationship with technology and take control of its direction. With an increasing global population becoming ever more affluent, the pressure on resources coupled with climate change will inevitably lead to more wars, water shortages, famines and mass migration. Or will it?
If profound economic, societal and environmental changes are inevitable then why do we still address them in the same way we have for millennia, by being helplessly reactive? In the 21st century, science and technology has advanced to a stage where we can start taking control of the fruits of scientific progress rather than being powerless in the face of their development and exploitation.
We already have many of the technologies we need to address major global problems such as water shortages and disease, and there is no reason why inevitable environmental disasters such as oil spills still have to be tackled using antiquated technology when a hundred million dollars could give us the technologies to reduce the impact of oil spills to almost zero. Many other emerging technologies are being developed that would allow the world to support 10 billion people without compromising the tremendous growth in quality of life that has taken place over the last century.
At Cientifica we establish how we can harness technologies for the global good. While we still lack the political will and necessary international institutions, we now have the knowledge and the tools to make the transition from being mere consumers of, and in some respect slaves to technology, to making use of the new scientific revolution to mitigate and minimise global risks.
While it would be foolish to claim that the wise use of science and technology will usher in a utopian age, there is little doubt that we now have the tools to create a sustainable and responsible world where human suffering and environmental degradation can be alleviated while maintaining economic growth.