Kathriona Devereux: It’s our future, so let’s decide what we want it to look like...

We need to think and talk about what future we want to live in, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: It’s our future, so let’s decide what we want it to look like...

DEEP THINKING: Concepts such as Artificial Intelligence need to be discussed - what boundaries do we want in place?

HUMANS aren’t good at thinking about the future. Our brains can’t project a futuristic, older version of us onto our current selves.

We can just about deal with near term future thinking and answer the standard hairdresser questions of “Any plans for the weekend?” or “Going anywhere nice on your holidays?” If pressed in an interview, we’ll cobble together an answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years time?”

But there are a lot of people who really give very little thought to where they will be in ten, 20 or 30 years’ time. We don’t save enough for pensions, we don’t exercise enough or drink less alcohol or sleep enough to protect our future health.

Our inability to imagine what life might be like in 30 years’ time is a big reason for our inability to wean ourselves off using fossil fuels to run our modern countries. Climate change, and all the havoc it will wreak, was seen as a distant, future threat.

Witnessing large swathes of Canada, California, Greece, Turkey and Spain on fire and extreme flooding in Germany, Belgium and New York helped focus the global consciousness that perhaps this climate change thing that scientists and environmentalists have been bleating on about is a real thing we should be worried about now, not later.

For most of us, ‘the future’ is an intangible destination that we’ll just end up at because of a series of small, random life decisions, but there are a whole cohort of people in the world whose job is to actively imagine and create the future.

For lots of scientists, engineers, developers, architects, coders and entrepreneurs, ‘the future’ is a place they are trying to shape, working to strict timelines and progress charts to get there.

In contrast, many other scientists are simply answering questions or solving problems without any concrete notion how their new knowledge will be used in the future. So-called ‘blue sky’ research is important because it allows the creativity and curiosity of researchers to find brand new answers and create brand new knowledge.

Science is the incremental accumulation of verified evidence and it can go in unexpected directions Scientific progress and advancements are continually raising moral and ethical questions about ‘what next?’

For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is now part and parcel of life and has already replaced a significant number of real jobs that were performed by real people. Language translating, accounting, transcribing and customer service are services increasingly performed by a sophisticated computer programme.

In the future, many other current jobs are expected to be performed by computers and machines. AI experts believe that some machines and AI programmes will become more intelligent than humans within this century. How AI pans out in the future is something that we should really consider.

Another example is CRISPR, a new area of biomedical science that enables gene editing and is helping us understand the genetic basis of many diseases.

CRISPR is a tool like a ‘genetic scissors’ that scientists are using to edit or change the human genome, the instruction manual for our bodies.

When there are ‘mistakes’ in our genome, it can lead to different diseases - from certain types of cancer to incurable neurodegenerative diseases.

CRISPR can edit out the ‘mistakes’ in our genome and diseases like muscular dystrophy might soon become curable thanks to this new technology.

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2020 for this revolutionary breakthrough, but gene editing is a rightly contentious issue that might enable science to tinker with the essence of what makes us humans. It’s something that society should definitely give some deep thought to.

We need to think and talk about what future we want to live in. Can we reap all the promise of progress and avoid the perils?

And that’s where you come in. This week is Science Week, and we all have an opportunity to help shape the future.

Science Foundation Ireland is running a national brainstorm campaign called ‘Creating Our Future’ to capture the good ideas, big questions and future challenges that the people of Ireland want addressed or answered.

‘Creating Our Future’ is about collecting people’s ideas for what researchers in Ireland should explore to create a better future.

You might want scientists to look at novel treatments for under-researched health conditions or to look at developing a cheap and efficient carbon removal technology. If you have something you want investigated, submit your idea on www.creatingourfuture.ie.

If you think the long term impact of a specific new technology warrants more research, then let Science Foundation Ireland know. An engaged public and society makes for better and more robust science.

The benevolent view of science sees it as the noble pursuit of knowledge. About asking questions and solving problems and making the world a better place. Science has invented chemotherapy to successfully treat childhood leukaemia and turn light from the sun into electricity, but science has also invented the nuclear bomb, combustion engine and plastic.

The problem with creating new knowledge is that you never really know how it’s going to be deployed or developed. That doesn’t mean we should sit in our caves, whittling our flint knives, but it does mean we should give deep consideration to the scientific advances that will shape society and humanity.

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