The Dark Side of World-Changing Technologies

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This is the third installment of a five-part WorldPost series on the world beyond 2050. The series is adapted from the Nierenberg Prize Lecture by Lord Martin Rees in La Jolla, Calif. Part one is available here. Part two is here. Part four will be published next week.

There are numerous novel technologies that will change society and empower individuals — but they have a dark side that’s all too frequently overlooked.

Our world increasingly depends on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, globally dispersed manufacturing and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns — real-world analogues of what happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralyzed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel can spread a pandemic worldwide within days, causing the gravest havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. And social media can spread panic and rumor and economic contagion literally at the speed of light.

To guard against the downsides of such an interconnected world plainly requires international collaboration. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.

Advances in microbiology — diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics — offer prospects of containing pandemics. But the same research has controversial aspects. For instance, in 2012, a group in Wisconsin showed that it was surprisingly easy to make the influenza virus both more virulent and transmissible. To some, this was a scary portent of things to come. In 2014 the U.S. government decided to cease funding these so-called “gain of function” experiments.

influenza virus