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Extracts from ‘On the Future’ by Martin Rees

Today's young people can expect to live to the end of the century. So how can they ensure that ever more powerful technologies — bio, cyber, and AI—can open up a benign future, without threatening catastrophic downsides? The stakes are higher than ever before; what happens this century will resonate for thousands of years.

…. three measures that could mitigate climate change seem politically realistic—indeed, almost 'win-win'. First, all countries could improve energy effi­ciency and thereby actually save money. There could be incentives to ensure 'greener' design of buildings. This is not just a matter of improved insulation—it requires re-thinking construction as well. … where the aim is to recycle as much material as possible."

Often, technical advances make appliances more efficient. It would then make sense to scrap the old ones, but only if the efficiency gain is at least enough to compensate for the extra cost of manufacturing the updated version. Appliances and vehicles could be designed in a more modular way so that they could be readily upgraded by replacing parts rather than by being thrown away. …. Effective action needs a change in mind-set. We need to value long-lasting things—and urge produc­ers and retailers to highlight durability. We need to repair and upgrade rather than replace…..

A second 'win-win' policy would target cuts to methane, black carbon, and CFC emissions. These are subsidiary contributors to greenhouse warming. But unlike CO2 they cause local pollution too—in Chinese cities, for instance —so there's a stronger in­centive to reduce them. (In European countries the effort to reduce pollution starts off with a handicap. In the 1990s there was pressure in favour of diesel cars because of their greater fuel economy. This is only now being reversed because they emit polluting microparticles that endanger healthy living in cities.)….

But the third measure is the most crucial. Na­tions should expand Research and Development  (R&D) into all forms of low-carbon energy genera­tion (renewables, fourth-generation nuclear, fusion, and the rest), and into other technologies where parallel progress is crucial— especially storage and smart grids.

Extracts from ‘Origin’ by Dan Brown (Fiction based on fact)

"These are just the primitive beginnings of this symbiosis. We are now starting to embed computer chips directly into our brains, inject our blood with tiny cholesterol-eating nanobots that live in us forever, build synthetic limbs that are controlled by our minds, use genetic editing tools like CRISPR to modify our genome, and, quite literally, engineer an enhanced version of ourselves."

"Human beings are evolving into something differen. We are becoming a hybrid species—a fusion of biology and technology. The same tools that today live outside our bodies—smartphones, hearing aids, reading glasses, most pharmaceuticals—in fifty years will be incor­porated into our bodies to such an extent that we will no longer be able to consider ourselves Homo sapiens."

…. New technologies like cybernetics, synthetic intelligence, cryon­ics, molecular engineering, and virtual reality will forever change what it means to be human. ….

…. a future where technology had become so inexpensive and ubiquitous that it erased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. A future where environmental technolo­gies provided billions of people with drinking water, nutritious food, and access to clean energy. A future where diseases like …cancer were eradicated, thanks to genomic medicine. A future where the awe­some power of the Internet was finally harnessed for education, even in the most remote corners of the world. A future where assembly-line robotics would free workers from mind-numbing jobs so they could pursue more rewarding fields that would open up areas not yet imagined….

“As we move into an undefined tomorrow we will transform ourselves into something greater than we can yet imagine with power beyond our wildest dreams. And as we do, may we never forget the wisdom of Churchill. who warned us: “The price of greatness …. is responsibility.

Extracts from ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari

What would happen, for example, if we developed a cure for Alzheimer's disease that, as a side benefit, could dramatically improve the memories of healthy people? Would anyone be able to halt the relevant research? And when the cure is developed, could any law enforcement agency limit it to Alzheimer's patients and prevent healthy people from using it to acquire super-memories?

….There is another new technology which could change the laws of  life: cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings which combine organic and inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands. In a sense, nearly all of us are bionic these days, since our natural senses and functions are supplemented by devices such as eyeglasses, pace­makers, orthotics, and even computers and mobile phones (which relieve our brains of some of their data storage and processing burdens). We stand poised on the brink of becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities.

… Sapiens, too, are being turned into cyborgs. The newest gener­ation of hearing aids are sometimes referred to as 'bionic ears'. The device consists of an implant that absorbs sound through a micro­phone located in the outer part of the ear. The implant filters the sounds, identifies human voices, and translates them into electric signals that are sent directly to the central auditory nerve and from there to the brain.

Retina Implant, a government-sponsored German company, is developing a retinal prosthesis that may allow blind people to gain partial vision. It involves implanting a small microchip inside the patient's eye. Photocells absorb light falling on the eye and transform it into electrical energy, which stimulates the intact nerve cells in the retina. The nervous impulses from these cells stimulate the brain, where they are translated into sight. At present the technology allows patients to orientate themselves in space, identify letters, and even recognise faces.  


Presently, only a tiny fraction of these new opportunities have been realised. Yet the world of 2014 is already a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology. Our ability to engin­eer not merely the world around us, but above all the world inside our bodies and minds, is developing at breakneck speed. More and more spheres of activity are being shaken out of their complacent ways. Lawyers need to rethink issues of privacy and identity; govern­ments are faced with rethinking matters of health care and equality; sports associations and educational institutions need to redefine fair play and achievement; pension funds and labour markets should readjust to a world in which sixty might be the new thirty. They must all deal with the conundrums of bioengineering, cyborgs and inorganic life.

Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person's DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.- The era of personalised medicine – medicine that matches treatment to DNA – has begun. The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn't worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 per cent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us.  However, with improvements in medical knowledge will come new ethical conundrums.

Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA. Would insurance companies be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover a genetic tendency to reck­less behaviour? Would we be required to fax our DNA, rather than our CV, to potential employers? Could an employer favour a candi­date because his DNA looks better? Or could we sue in such cases for 'genetic discrimination'? Could a company that develops a new creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences? It is obvious that one can own a particular chicken, but can one own an entire species?

Such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, social and political implications of the Gilgamesh Project and of our potential new abilities to create superhumans. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, government medical programmes throughout the world, national health insurance programmes and national constitutions worldwide recognise that a humane society ought to give all its members fair medical treatment and keep them in relatively good health. That was all well and good as long as medicine was chiefly concerned with preventing illness and healing the sick. What might happen once medicine becomes preoccupied with enhancing human abilities? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities, or would there be a new superhuman elite?

Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies. Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves. A baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince. With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective realm: This is not science fiction.

Most science-fiction plots describe a world in which Sapiens – identical to us – enjoy superior technology such as light-speed spaceships and laser guns. The ethical and polit­ical dilemmas central to these plots are taken from our own world. and they merely recreate our emotional and social tensions against a futuristic backdrop. Yet the real potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our emotions and desires, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. What is a spaceship compared to an eternally young cyborg who does not breed and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine?

Science fiction rarely describes such a future, because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible. Producing a film about the life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of Neanderthals. Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed 'before' the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world — me, you, men, women, love and hate — will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us.

A Final Extract from ‘On the Future’ by Martin Rees

‘Space-Ship Earth is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. But there is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks. It would be shameful if we bequeathed to future generations a depleted and hazardous world.

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Over the years the Tapestry Pages have covered a variety of mixtures and specific subjects but we realise we have never covered the boundaries of science before. For impact we have included just three sources that possibly speculatively gaze into a scary future. This page is not for the faint-hearted.