Perhaps the greatest one-page science fiction ever written is Fredric Brown’s “Answer”. It takes place in the future where humanity has tamed nature, conquered galaxies, and connects a giant supercomputer that will hold all knowledge in databases across galaxies, linked by a sort of interplanetary internet.
When he’s finally plugged in, one of the assembled humans asks him a question that has puzzled humanity through the ages: “Is there a God?” The supercomputer does not hesitate for a moment to answer: “Yes, now there is. ”The full range of that answer hits another of the assembled humans. He turns pale with fear and rushes to unplug the supercomputer. But a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky hits him and flips the switch, providing the supercomputer with infinite power for its operations.
Many visionary writers have guessed the future. Whether the coronavirus was indeed created in a research lab in Wuhan – and an article by science journalist Nicholas Wade in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists brings together very compelling evidence why we should think so – the obvious literary parallel that occurs is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s filthy creation in this case not being so much a monster as a tiny virus. But the little story of Fredric Brown would be even closer to the goal. After all, even Frankenstein’s monster has feelings and isn’t as destructive – while the coronavirus, like the supercomputer, becomes a pure artefact of technology.
Regardless of whether Covid-19 actually came out of a Wuhan lab, what is indisputable is that virologists have for some time been engaged in dangerous ‘gain-of-function’ experiments – in which viruses are designed to become more effective in spreading disease. Shi Zhengli, the infamous “Lady Bat” of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has teamed up with Ralph S Baric of the University of North Carolina to improve the ability of bat viruses to attack human bats. humans. Other American virologists have also embarked on such work; oddly enough, Shi and Baric’s work was partly funded by the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH).
If you’re wondering what the NIH is doing by funding experiments like these, which translates into the opposite of its mission because they could promote disease on a large scale, the only plausible answer is a technology fetish, or a cult of technology for the sake of technology. Virologists’ defense is that the scientific knowledge gained from them will somehow help us get ahead of a pandemic. As Wade rightly argues, how exactly have they kept us one step ahead of the Covid pandemic, which has already claimed millions of lives?
Those who perform “gain-of-function” experiments, in fact, come close to the prototype “scholarly idiot”, if not to the “mad scientist” caricatures of which popular fiction abounds. And technology is approaching religion in the modern world, with few of its converts – often more powerful and persuasive than the high priests of Orthodox religions – ready to answer or raise questions about the extent to which it serves human goals. .
Indeed, futurists like Yuval Noah Harari project a bleak future for humanity, with technology under control: “Soon authority could change again – from humans to algorithms. Just as divine authority was legitimized by religious mythologies, and human authority was justified by liberal history, the coming technological revolution could establish the authority of big data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual liberty ”(21 Lessons for the 21st Century).
The signs of a technology unleashed are not limited to man-made viruses or unregulated big data. They are all around us. Take climate change. Its consequences could be far greater, and even more unstoppable – once the genie is out of the bottle – than the coronavirus. Take the development of killer robots. Technically known as LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems), they could soon become laws in themselves if they materialize on the battlefield. Stephen Hawking and 4,502 AI / robotics researchers signed an open letter calling for a ban on these slaughter robots – to no avail.
Where scientists don’t want to go, politicians want to go (scientists may be more aware of the Janus nature of their calling). So the Terminator prototypes could soon move from movie theaters to a veritable theater of war near you, promising unlimited chaos.
The ambiguous situation for humanity, however, is that more technology is needed to solve the problems created by technology. For example, if the Covid-19 has come out of a virology laboratory, the unprecedented rate of vaccine development offers it an antidote. No romantic, Luddite escape from technology is really possible. If we are trapped in a tech maze, only more science and technology can show us the way out.
But regulating science and technology – especially in emerging fields like genetics and AI – is now even more urgent than regulating big data. Ethics and the search for a human goal must occupy a preponderant place in all fields of scientific activity and be integrated into every scientific program. Areas of activity such as pathogen engineering or killer robots should be banned outright. China and the United States, as the two nations with the strongest tech fetishes (in that order), must lead the way.
Covid has already claimed more death and suffering than sizable religious wars – and we don’t know what horrors its future trajectory holds. The only way to redeem the suffering on the massive scale of Covid is if, through it, humanity comes to understand the growing dangers of technological fetishism, and to develop the policies and institutions necessary to move beyond and towards a more humble, and humane, science.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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