What role will technology play in human evolution? Will it transform the human body? Will it transform the human mind? What must we do to adapt to technology-driven change? These questions and others were explored before a sold-out audience last week at TEDxMarin here in San Rafael, California. As with other TED events, the ideas presented were stimulating, inspiring and provocative.
Two talks seemed particularly germane to those of us who believe in the ability of technology to change the world, and who recognize our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that such change is for the better.
Miriam Leuck Avery of the Institute for the Future described a new model for understanding the human body, health and disease. She began by looking backward, to the way humans in Western Civilization viewed human health from the time of Hippocrates to the late 19th Century, as an intricate balance of fluids, or humours – blood, bile and phlegm. During the 19th Century, we began to view our bodies as suits of armor, subject to invasion by foreign bodies, or germs that needed to be battled using pharmaceuticals and other weapons.
Leuck Avery argued that while this latter view has led to enormous medical advances and saved millions of lives, it’s insufficient – as evidenced by the rise of ever-stronger bacteria, the prevalence of mental ill-health, and even global climate change. Rather, she presented a new model of the human being: a microbiome, or community of microorganisms. She believes that by thinking of ourselves in this way, we can change the way we live and think about ourselves, health and illness, and the importance of the environment and the communities in which we live and work.
Leuck Avery’s colleague at the Institute for the Future, Jamais Cascio, explored the ethical dilemmas that will arise as the technologies we use today take hold in our society and play out over time. For example, a common prescription drug approved to treat ADHD is increasingly popular on college campuses for a different indication: sharpening mental acuity and preparing for exams. Cascio speculated that such a drug could, within a few years, be used by businesses or even governments in an effort to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals whose employees or citizens did not use the drug.
Cascio argued for the establishment of what he called a magna cortis – a Magna Carta for the governance of our brains and bodies – before it’s too late. Such a document might stipulate our rights as humans to enhance (or not) our own brains and those of others (including children), as well as to know who else has enhanced their brains with the use of drugs and other technologies.
We love stories about how technologies make life better, yet history has shown us that they can also have disastrous consequences. As humans, we have a responsibility to consider the full implications of our work so that what we build yields the benefits we genuinely desire. FICO, for example, is among the companies using analytics to mimic the workings of the human mind, with the goal of helping people make better decisions for themselves, their families and their businesses.
Are we kidding ourselves? I don’t think so. But – speaking for myself – I also believe I have to remain vigilant against the possibility of becoming mesmerized by excitement and forgetting to question where our well-intentioned efforts might lead.