people still do not appreciate how fast science and
technology (S&T) will change over the next 25
years, and given this rapid development along several
different fronts, the possibility of technology growing
beyond human control must now be taken seriously,
according to a new report.
The State of the Future 2005 report is produced by the United Nations University's
Millennium Project - a global think tank of foresight experts, academics and
policy makers. It analyses current global trends and examines in detail some
of the current and future challenges facing the world.
Setting the scene, the report states: 'Future synergies among nanotechnology,
biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science can dramatically
improve the human condition by increasing the availability of food, energy
and water and by connecting people and information anywhere. The effect will
be to increase collective intelligence and create value and efficiency while
However, it warns that 'a previous and troubling finding from the Millennium
Project still remains unsolved: although it is increasingly clear that humanity
has the resources to address its global challenges, unfortunately it is not
increasingly clear how much wisdom, goodwill and intelligence will be focussed
on these challenges.'
The report argues that because the factors that caused the acceleration of
S&T are themselves accelerating, the rate of change in the past 25 years
will appear slow compared to the rate of change in the next 25 years. 'To help
the world cope with the acceleration of change, it may be necessary to create
an international S&T organisation to arrange the world's science and technology
knowledge as well as forecasts of potential consequences in a better Internet-human
interface,' it argues.
Taking one particular example - that of nanotechnology - the report predicts
that this field will deliver extraordinary benefits for humanity, but warns
that little is currently known about the environmental and health risks of
nanomaterials. Since the military is currently a major player in the development
of nanotechnology, the report proposes military research to help understand
and manage these risks.
The most important questions to pursue, according to the report, are: how are
nanoparticles absorbed into the body through the skin, lungs, eyes, ears and
alimentary canal? Once in the body, can nanoparticles evade natural defences
of humans and other animals? What are the potential exposure routes of nanomaterials
- both airborne and waterborne? How biodegradable are nanotube-based structures?
The authors suggest that a classification system will be needed to provide
a framework within which to make research judgements and keep track of the
knowledge regarding potential nanotech pollution. 'Toxicologists and pharmaceutical
scientists will have to be brought together to investigate nanoparticles' ability
to evade cell defences to target disease,' they add.
Returning to the wider challenges facing humanity, the report notes that national
decision makers are rarely trained in the theory and practice of decision making,
and argues that advanced decision support software could help. 'Formalized
ethics and decision training for decision makers could result in a significant
improvement in the quality of global decisions,' it concludes.
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