Technological Advancements Force Hard Questions

At a conference I attended earlier this week, Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA, spoke about the unfathomably rapid technological developments we are experiencing and will continue to experience: it won't be long, he said, before every single job can be done by a robot. He said scientists thought there were some jobs, like nursing, that required a human touch; then they tried robots in a nursing home and found out the residents liked the robots better. With total virtuality, he went on, we can obtain our entire education online; institutions like Harvard and Stanford will become nothing more than "expensive social clubs" -- as if the sole purpose of education is the data we download -- and as if the relationships we build in our formative years are nothing more than a frivolous distraction.

TED talks this year included a doctor printing a human kidney on the stage, a man who spoke about intentional evolution through genetic modification, and a robotic exoskeleton that allows people who are paralyzed from the waist down to walk for the first time.



We have the ability to genetically screen fetuses for predisposition to certain conditions, the ability to use laser surgery to enhance our eyesight beyond "perfect," the ability to run faster on prosthetic limbs than we can on the originals. Aimee Mullins, who has a dozen pairs of prosthetic legs and can adjust her height six inches up or down depending on her mood, points out that Pamela Anderson still has more synthetic content in her body than she does. We speak blithely about life expectancies of 130, 150, 200 years.

Clearly, the question before us is no longer, "Can we?" And so the question before us must be, "Should we?"

Given the choice to live for 150 years, would you want to? Has technology improved our quality of life or merely focused our attention downward, toward our devices and away from the eyes of the person sitting across from us? Is it possible for Western society to embrace death as a part of the human condition, or will our technology R&D budgets remain dedicated to escaping it?

And, if you were to live forever, how would you spend your time? How would you find meaning? What would be the point?

These questions used to belong in the realm of a select few, generally old bearded men who didn't have to work and could afford to do nothing but think. But in a world of infinite technology and exponentially increasing capabilities, we are each obliged to become philosophers -- because, at some point, we will each be forced to answer them. The greatest challenge with these questions is the distinction between the macro and the micro, the point at which the abstract becomes not only tangible but personal. We might think it's a bad idea to double average life expectancy -- that the planet can't take it, that we don't have the resources, that an extended old age means an extended drain on the public system -- but who among us is ready to put her hand up to die earlier than necessary?

I do not have the answers to these questions -- no one does. But our ever-growing power to manipulate the world around us means we can no longer avoid thinking about them. They are the questions that are shaping our lives, and, if we don't at least consider them, we will have sacrificed any idea of quality in favor of artificially enhanced quantity.

I cannot wait to hear your thoughts on these topics. Please leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter. And may you live a meaningful life.

7 comments about "Technological Advancements Force Hard Questions".
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  1. Ken Peterson from Monterey Bay Aquarium, April 1, 2011 at 3:18 p.m.

    These are excellent questions to reflect on -- and they won't mean a thing if we don't start living within the capacity of Earth's ecosystem to support our population and civilization. Right now, now we're running up an ecological credit card debt for which there is no bailout.

  2. Michael Dirmeikis from SMS Text Marketing, April 1, 2011 at 3:25 p.m.

    Good, heady stuff! The recent Japan disaster reminds all that "our ever-growing power to manipulate the world around us..." isn't really that powerful.

    Technology "improvements" have transformed many from social, thoughtful beings to kids playing games. New technology provides distractions; watching your TV from your iPhone; checking in at a retailer through NFC, mobile payments, etc. What is the underlying value of all of these capabilities? Probably just providing one more mechanism to promote one's wares through sponsored advertising, with SOME convenience addition.

    We tend to become tethered to this stuff. Forget about the sweet smell of print when we read a book, it's now on Kindle. Forget about having a thoughtful conversation with someone, we now comment (like here) on someone's blog, replete, I might add, with all kinds of spelling and grammatical errors. If we don't have access to the Internet ether, we now feel lost, isolated. Our dependence on toys increases with each technological advancement.

    Ever talk to someone that's taken some time off in a remote place, one with no cell signal, no Internet, no newspaper, no TV? What's their normal reaction? Typically, it's one of relief, relaxation, and quality time, all things that we increasingly forsake with technology access.

    Maybe these are just nostalgic musings, and maybe not.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 1, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.

    The population must be reduced to be able to support more longevity. The growth at present rates is unsustainable with the resources and waste produced now. Birth control must, must, must be number one one the things to do list. People do not fight and die over having too much, but too little. Shiny dimes are not the solution.

  4. Josh Eldridge from Adchemy, April 1, 2011 at 6:21 p.m.

    I do believe that most jobs will soon be replaceable by a better method, algorithm, hardware or software system or perhaps as the author suggests an actual robot. This is already happening. If we think companies will keep their humans employed when there is a better and cheaper method we are overestimating the human nature of CEO's and Boards and underestimating the need for profits at any cost. This can and will happen. If labor is cheaper overseas most companies outsource. Until that option existed, companies used domestic workers because that was their only option not because they "cared" about their employees. There is no such thing as "care" when it comes to profits. Technology combined with capitalism will ultimately put so many people out of work that we will find ourselves in a new world that looks nothing like the one we know. Adjusting to it means staying one step ahead of replacement by a cheaper, faster, better version of you.

  5. Michael Dirmeikis from SMS Text Marketing, April 2, 2011 at 7:10 p.m.

    How depressing to read comments that seemingly accept this drivel.

  6. Richard Monihan, April 4, 2011 at 12:22 p.m.

    Given this was published on April 1, I'll assume at the start that it's a joke. Because I couldn't read it without laughing.

    On the other hand, if anyone takes it seriously, I'd have to wonder where they're coming from. It's not that I'm a Luddite - technological advancement is always a good thing. The problem is never in the technology, but in how certain humans choose to utilize it (ask Alfred Nobel what he thought the impact of dynamite would be on war...).

    Still, while I find this article just shy of "A Modest Proposal", articles of this nature are often designed to spark discussion of very real moral/ethical issues in order to determine what, if any, limits we have as humans.

    I'd argue there are no limits to what we can do or discover. But there are limits to how we, as humans, can and should implement things. Those limits, however, change over time.

    (BTW, loved the invocation of thoroughly outdated Malthusian economics within the comments...hard to tell if that was sarcastic, too)

  7. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, April 5, 2011 at 7:54 p.m.

    Thanks so much for your excellent comments! Ken, Paula, Josh, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Michael, I'm a little confused by the difference in tone between your first and second comment -- can you help me understand? And, Richard, you were spot on with this: "articles of this nature are often designed to spark discussion of very real moral/ethical issues in order to determine what, if any, limits we have as humans. I'd argue there are no limits to what we can do or discover. But there are limits to how we, as humans, can and should implement things." That pretty much sums up the point I was trying to make.

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