Singular Solutions

I once had enormous faith in the ability of science and technology to solve the monstrous problems confronting humankind.  Lately, though, my confidence has ebbed as I’ve come to acknowledge that astonishing breakthroughs in science and technology frequently come with a cost: unintended consequences.   Not only that, these marvels of innovation require human intervention to direct them and to ensure that they are put to good use and that the good use is not hijacked by greed-fueled manipulation.

The discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s, whose primary first use admittedly was pretty nasty, could have led exclusively to positive outcomes.  I believe even the issue of what to do with spent nuclear fuel could have been addressed successfully if the same energy (pardon the pun) poured into the Manhattan Project had been directed, instead, toward constructive solutions.  The wisdom of the use of atomic energy to devastate Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be forever debated; no one will ever be able to answer the question with unequivocal certainty: would the loss of life been even greater had the war continued, thereby “justifying” the use of nuclear weapons?

I think such monstrous results of technological “solutions” have made the public, worldwide, justly skeptical of technological solutions to the biggest problems facing humankind.  The simple outcomes, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coupled with highly suspect uses and misuses of technology, combine to cause skepticism to spread like cancer.

That can be good.  Think of the issues presently being debated with respect to genetically modified crops and the large and growing list of pesticides once in common use but now banned.  And think of the pesticides still used but incompletely assessed as to their long-term effect on health. Skepticism can be good.  It can be life-saving.

But skepticism can close our eyes and our minds to the possibility of real solutions to the very real problems the human race has created for ourselves.  Potential (and very real) mass starvation. Mass dehydration.  Overpopulation. Diseases born of, or at least supported by, population density. There are a thousand others.

Skepticism has taken hold because, despite breathtaking, stunning, truly miraculous advances in science and technology, as a species we seem incapable of using those advances in entirely positive ways.  And we seem blind to the unintended consequences of unleashing these grand new technological and scientific marvels.

Despite my growing skepticism, though, I have to wonder if we might still be able to get it right.  Can we eventually reach a point in the evolution of our species at which we are able to limit the practical implementation of every scientific and technological advance only after sufficiently understanding its potential shortfalls and how they will be addressed?

I started thinking about these questions after seeing the tail end of a television report on the Singularity University Summit Europe, held in November in Budapest.  The concept of bringing together the world’s brightest minds to tackle the world’s toughest challenges has enormous appeal to me.  The concept suggests someone is getting serious about what it will take to address some of the most indomitable problems facing humankind.  First and foremost, I think, we have to step away from the edge of denial and actually admit the problems exist and we must admit how grave they are.  I liked the idea!

Yet, when I started looking online at the event program, my excitement abated.  Not entirely, mind you, because a list of topics does not really cover the heart of the conversations that took place, but I have to admit my enthusiasm waned.  Seeing a list of corporate sponsors contributed to my flagging support for the concept.  It didn’t help my excitement to recognize that this event was exclusively about science and technology. While I may have an overabundance of confidence in science, I believe “solutions” that fail to account for the vagaries of humankind will never become solutions. The best and brightest psychologists and sociologists and urban planners and farmers and…the list is almost endless…must be invited to participate if reality is to be found somewhere among the fantasy.

I don’t really know precisely what was discussed, so I cannot condemn the event.  I like to think my skepticism is simply a healthy response, learned through a lifetime of watching great ideas and wonderful advances be swallowed by greed.

With all that said, I still believe there may be a chance that science and technology can, indeed, be the “salvation” of humanity.  But science and technology need help.

I’d like to see a completely nonpartisan effort (I’ll call it the Global Solutions Initiative, or GSI) be undertaken by the governments of the world, whereby the greatest minds from science and technology are teamed with the greatest minds from the social sciences and with the brightest people who have real, day-to-day experience dealing with problems like growing food, finding and harnessing energy, finding and purifying and delivering water, and a host of related real-world challenges.

The United Nations might be in a position to convene the GSI, but I suspect partisan distrust would call into question the credibility of the endeavor.  It would be best to start fresh, with the GSI convened and funded by joint resolutions of every country on earth. The GSI could be charged, at the outset, with the following:

  1. Identify the twenty most pressing problems facing, or likely to face, humankind and the planet, within the next century;
  2. Prioritize the problems according to their acuteness, the severity of their outcome if left unsolved, and the breadth of their impact, globally;
  3. Assemble teams best equipped to consider and develop solutions to achieve the problems, in priority order, but taking into account that severity may trump acuteness;
  4. Articulate, in layman’s terms to the extent possible, the problems to be addressed;
  5. Establish mechanisms for the general population to offer ideas, suggestions, etc. to each problem;
  6. Determine the resources necessary to arrive at and begin implementation of the solutions;
  7. Conduct the necessary work to identify suitable solution(s) and, for each solution identified, conduct a full-scale assessment of confounding factors and potential unintended consequences;
  8. Come to consensus on the best solution(s) and present those solutions, along with recommendations regarding public policies to support their implementation, to world governments.
  9. Hope for the best.

That last item is an appropriate admonition for every human being on the planet, regardless of whether the GSI were ever to come to pass.

I do have faith in science and technology.  I am not sure how much faith I have in humankind to take appropriate advantage of them, though, without mucking up the world in the process.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
This entry was posted in Economics, Food, Government, Philosophy, Politics, Population, Poverty, Urban planning, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

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