Now Arriving: the Future (with Guests)

The real world and the worst of our dystopian nightmares have been in a blender since Y2K, and we’ve been living in a messy mix of both ever since. The difference of late is that the blender has sped up and the top has popped off — and not just in the realm of politics. Wondrous, once only imaginable, breakthroughs continue in science and tech. And while we’ve been able at times to conjure up in our minds the implications of these advances, as they continue to roll in we realize we’re not equipped to dream up all the potential repercussions. Nor are we equipped to manage them.

The latest example deals with a staple of sci-fi: human engineering. As the NY Times reports, “An influential science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine on Tuesday lent its support to a once-unthinkable proposition: the modification of human embryos to create genetic traits that can be passed down to future generations.”

Bio-engineering is a well of inspiration from which to craft a grim view of the future, and not just because lawyers have become involved. That’s not new. And it’s also not a fair shake for the science, which holds the potential to eliminate diseases and dramatically reduce pain and suffering. But imagining some of the worst turns this science could take is one way we deal with the pace of change and the unknown of the future, while sub-consciously or not admitting our proclivity to put our science in service of our vanity.

The issues for the fate of our species and our world are massive. Among the things on the table are our longevity, intelligence, safety, and the definition(s) of our humanity. All this will play out in a swamp of questions about access, inequality, money, ethics, and control. The potential for leaps in our evolution are there, right beside the potential for disaster. As with all things in this world, it won’t be one or the other but a mix of both. Whether is it is more one than the other will depend largely on how much we pay attention. Now would be a good time.

In that sense, the U.S. advisory group’s move is a good one.