Written by Leopold Schmertzing and Valerie Hoogewys
How far will science have progressed by 2030 in fields such as genetics and robotics, and will societies globally and in Europe be able to shape developments and prevent possible excesses? Will a scientific renaissance lead to a revitalised and more humane society? Or will the negative consequences of these advances prevail, in an age when anyone might print weapons of mass destruction?
On the second day of the ESPAS Conference 2015 at the European Parliament, Mady Delvaux-Stehres, (MEP, S&D), Member of the STOA panel and Rapporteur for the EP Committee on Legal Affairs working group on robotics and artificial intelligence, discussed these and other issues with Dr Jean-Jacques Cassiman, emeritus Human Genetics Professor at KU Leuven, Dr Geneviève Ferone Creuzet, a corporate social responsibility expert and author of ‘Bienvenue en transhumanie’, Dr Sabine Hauert, a Swarm Engineer at the University of Bristol and co-founder of Robohub, and Dr Ana Noronha, the Executive Director at Ciência Viva, Portugal.
Ms. Delvaux-Stehres – wavering, as she said, between hope and fear about scientific progress – started off by posing some questions to the panel: Will science eventually win the battle against illness and will humans be immortal and forever young? Who will have access to progress? Will a happy few, super-intelligent, and super-powerful, dominate the world? How can we react as Europeans, as a community of values, to rapid changes in genetics and robotics?
For Professor Cassiman these are exciting times in DNA research. Much can be done, especially by using new technologies. But how will we manage this knowledge revolution encompassing all sectors of medicine? Today, the implementation of new technology in genetics advances so fast that validation is sidelined. Things that possibly have not been completely thought through are tested in clinics. Therefore, one should also ask where the endpoint of this development is. Here Professor Cassiman pointed to transhumanism as one possible future and appreciated that this issue would be included in a later discussion.
Another important topic is the balance between academia and industry, since it is now possible to order all sorts of DNA analysis via the internet. Will academia finally have to admit defeat? What is to be done when DNA testing quality becomes so cheap and efficient that people know about diseases well in advance, but simultaneously treatment becomes unaffordable? Accessibility is a common problem in all fields of medicine, not only in genetics, but also in nano-medicine and neuro-enhancement.
To conclude, modifying the environment will have a greater effect than changing the human being itself. And here DNA analysis gives us an insight into which environment is the one we need. When asked what policymakers should do, Professor Cassiman stated that the EU still has no common position on DNA testing, which is absurd. Europe should have one agency that decides on standards, so that everyone can be tested.
According to Dr Sabine Hauert, robots are already leaving the lab. Nowadays you can find them on Mars, in oceans and the sky, but also in your house, at work, on and even inside human beings. The newest versions of robots in the workplace are co-bots, so-called collaborative robots that can be taught how to work, but most robots are still limited to one particular task. Therefore de-hyping the present state of robots is important, which in turn requires communication skills that scientists often do not possess. The European Commission should finance more research in communicating these issues.
In answer to questions from Ms Delvaux-Stehres regarding the threats posed by artificial intelligence (AI), issues of autonomy in the next generation of robots and the likelihood of job losses, Dr Hauert highlighted the gains in productivity that often even lead companies to hire more employees in other fields. Nevertheless, the situation could be different over the long term. Here, one should not forget that technology has always displaced jobs, as it did in the past. The question may be asked as to how many employees will be doing the same type of work in 20 years from now. But per se this is neither a good nor bad thing.
Dr Noronha believes that education and communication between industry, state and society are the solution to this problem (an argument contested by others on the ground that change through education alone is too slow), and warned that uneducated societies might want to stop research out of fear, which would be detrimental to scientific progress. Dr Ferone Creuzet added that sustainability should also be considered in this debate, as progress in robotics and AI come hand in hand with the end of labour-intensive economic models and emerging trends favouring less production. Therefore, both trends would decrease the availability of jobs.
Asked about trust in relation to robots, Dr Hauert highlighted the advances in machine-human interfaces, where, at some point, robots would describe how trustworthy they are when working. The best example for different ways of building trust can be observed in autonomous car technology: while Google tries to become fully autonomous, current car manufacturers work more iteratively, advancing from autonomous parking to independent lane following. This iterative development always needs to be accompanied by the car outlining the level of trust it should be granted by the driver. These developments need to be accompanied by a legal framework and testing standards.
According to Dr Ferone Creuzet, transhumanism is not a scientific theory, but a concept, and its beginnings can already be observed in our present everyday lives. What is parentage, she asked, if the DNA of three persons is used as genetic foundation for a child, as was recently carried out in the UK? The smart phone is already an important technical prolongation of the hand and the possibility of enhancing brain capacity exists. To this Professor Cassiman added that people are forgetting that “dying is normal“. So what will the implications be, if you can either be an old person and a burden to society or pay huge amounts to be made younger in the near future?
“We do not have to talk about immortality”, said Dr Ferone Creuzet. But simply stretching lifetime to 150 years in good health would change society entirely. Especially problematic are the underlying assumptions of transhumanism: that ethics is replaced by sheer possibility, that this is a process guided by a for-profit industry and that this crowds out other, maybe even more important research.
What could be done must be based on the question what it means to be human. Robots and humans could get along very nicely, but what if there were more than one human species due to robotic and genetic changes? What about affordability and equality in such a world? Will we be happier because we turned into a superior race that survives disasters which normal people would not? What about other parts of the world, like Africa? The need for an ethical development of human dignity became apparent during the discussion, especially with the transfer of genetic changes to the next generation, which is a red line for Professor Cassiman.
Science and Society
Dr Noronha highlighted that, as more people self-organise in order to participate in choosing options of scientific and technological advancements, we will need both an eye-to-eye discussion between scientists and citizens and sources of reliable information to support decision making. Therefore, the state has to prepare spaces of public engagement between science and society, as her institution, Ciência Viva, provides. This means de-complexifying issues, finding hands-on approaches and explaining through stories or objects. After explaining DNA research in this way, one could ask who should have access to information and who should not. Would citizens still agree that insurers could obtain their DNA?
Dr Hauert reminded us that science will be more transdisciplinary. Her own research involves biology, IT, complexity studies, medicine and nano-technology to fight cancer. This requires a new scientific framework, one that is currently being built.
For Dr Ferone Creuzet, the rapid progress of science is in need of a more sustainable world that can cope with this progress. Only the resilience of such an environment would provide enough stability, and without it we would start changing the world and ourselves in an unstable and destructive way. The question is whether we can build this democratic and sustainable resilience quick enough as we do not have much time.