Monday, June 16, 2014

15 future technologies that should (not) scare you

On Twitter I follow a popular fact sharing account known as @uberfacts. As has been pointed out elsewhere , a number of the ‘facts’ they tweet are either questionable or completely false. On at least three occasions now they have tweeted a link to a gizmopod gallery entitled 15 future technologies that should scare you

After viewing this gallery I found it to be very conservative and neophobic, with an almost singular focus on the negative effects of future technology with almost no thought given to the positive. Frankly, the author sounds like they’re practicing for being a stereotypical old man, blinded by his nostalgia and rambling on about how rotten the modern world is. I find this sort of ignorant fear mongering very irritating, so I would like to refute each of the gallery’s 15 points.

1. In vitro meat

I found the first entry on the list to be the most egregious, as absolutely no reason is given as to why this would be a bad thing. The author just takes it for granted that anything so unnatural would automatically be bad. Natural meat currently accounts for nearly a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions and is horribly inefficient to produce, requiring an average of 100 grams of vegetable matter to produce every 15 grams of meat. The conditions in Factory Farms are horrific and unsanitary, and the wide spread use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance. Cultured meat, in contrast, would require significantly less energy, land and water to produce. It could be grown in a sterile environment that would negate the need for antibiotics, and eliminating our contact with farm animals would greatly reduce the risk of their diseases mutating to infect us. The meat could be engineered to be much healthier than real meat, and of course would be much kinder to the donor animals involved in its production. It’s good for the environment, good for our health, and good for the animals. I really don’t see an issue with it at all.

2. Cuddlebot

This entry seems to be the least serious on the list. It’s basically a robotic tribble, and I get the feeling the author added it just to get the number up to fifteen. The thing is just a battery powered stuffed animal, neither very futuristic nor very worrying.

3. Breathe Like a Fish

Here the author suggests that the ability to breathe oxygen from water would result in Human beings colonizing the ocean, inevitably leading to territorial disputes. First of all, it will take more than advanced scuba gear to allow Human beings to live underwater indefinitely. Secondly, Human Beings coming into conflict over limited resources is inevitable. If anything, colonizing the oceans would increase the amount of habitable space in the World, thereby reducing conflict.

4. Exoskeletons

The author’s main concern with this is their use in warfare. They completely ignore the reality that this will grant greatly increased mobility to the disabled, and also enhance the productivity of physical labourers. I personally think that super soldiers will prove to be politically unviable. If you have transhuman cyborgs massacring helpless civilians, that’s a PR nightmare. Any military that did so would likely receive condemnation both from the international community and their civilian governments.

5. Caffeine Spray

Like a lot of entries on this list, this appears to be pure neophobia. The author never suggests caffeine is bad in and of itself. Does the method of ingestion really matter? I personally like mochas, but if you want to spray caffeine right on your skin I’m not going to judge.

6. Microdrones

The threat advancing technology poses to privacy is a complex issue, one beyond the scope of this article. I will therefore defer the reader to David Brin’s nonfiction book The Transparent Society, wherein he speculates how we might adapt to this future and turn it largely to our benefit.

7. Tube Trains

I don’t deny that some trees will need to be cut down to make the infrastructure for this technology, but how is that any different from modern highways? Evacuated Tube Transport will be much faster and environmentally friendly, as the tubes can be powered by solar panels built along the tops of their tunnels.

8. Synthetic Alcohol

Once again, the author’s fear seems to be nothing but neophobia. What exactly is the problem with a drink that never gets you black out drunk, does not create physical dependence and causes none of the bodily harm of alcohol?

9. Brain Computer Interface

Obviously there are risks with directly interfacing with the brain, but there are also great benefits. If we rejected every technology that simply came with a risk of doing us harm then we wouldn’t even have fire. This sort of technophobic fear-mongering typically assumes that not even the most common sense precautions will be taken to protect against abuse or accidents. The knowledge that allows us to create neural interfaces will also allow us to mitigate the risks they pose, allowing us to reap the greatest benefit.

10. Wi-fi based X-ray vision

While this is admittedly a privacy concern, it is also a great medical advance. Imagine downloading a medical app to your phone that can actually scan your body for signs of disease.

11. Speech Jammer

I can’t really think of a legitimate use for this technology, but functionally I don’t see how it’s really any different than sounding a bullhorn in someone’s face. This is a high tech solution to a low tech problem.

12. Self-driving cars

Will these cars sometimes make mistakes that end in loss of life? Of course they will, but Humans do that too. If a self-driving car is statistically less likely to get into an accident than a person, then it would be irrational to oppose them.

13. Winged Rollercosters

This seems to be purely personal. I don’t like intense amusement park rides either, but if you enjoy them then by all means go ahead.

14. Edible Packaging

Here the author at least admits this will greatly reduce the amount of non-biodegradable garbage we currently produce. Their concern is that these packages will be eaten when that is undesirable. There is currently a patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the United States. If bite marks on our boxes is the price we pay to get rid of it, I can live with that.

15. Human Life extension

Sadly, the author’s objection to this is purely misanthropic. Humans are viewed only as consumers and destroyers, and longer lives only mean more consumption and destruction. But Humans are also creators. Imagine what our greatest minds could accomplish if they could live for centuries. Imagine what you could accomplish. If people lived for centuries, would that not also make them less short-sighted? Would they not be more concerned with environmental destruction if they could expect to live for hundreds of years? Would they not be more motivated to ensure that the world they had to live in forever was a good one?    

I’ve said before that technology is a double edged sword, and we should not ignore its potential dangers. But that does not mean we should fear or reject it indiscriminately.  Pessimism in no more rational than optimism, and we should not allow naïve cynicism to scare us away from progress. Though it is impossible to create a perfect world, it is always possible to make a better one.

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