Some thoughts about the post-digital era
We have had Orange is the New Black, it now seems that digital is the new normal. During the first class of my module Entrepreneurship in the post-digital era this year, we were asked to jump back to the year 1919 and think about what had changed in the last 25 years. Our first thoughts collectively went to the Industrial Revolution, World Wars, Pierre and Marie Curie’s discovery of the radium, or the development of modern transports. If we took the same challenge today, in 2019, and tried to project ourselves 25 years into the future, in 2044, what would we find?
In this article, I will outline what I believe are the major forces our world will have to face in the next decades. There are of course many, ranging from neuroscience to biology, social evolutions, migration, climate change or Artificial Intelligence; hence I will only focus on two: Artificial Intelligence and biology.
First, let us consider Artificial Intelligence. Often defined as the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour, many fear AI will make jobs, and more generally our economy as we know it, obsolete: from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, academics seem to see AI as a threat to humanity. But is it really the case? Or is it just that AI will shift our relationship to others, to work, and to ourselves? I believe a smart way to think of AI is as an enhancement of human capabilities. Yes, enhancement, not replacement. Similarly to a computer enabling us to process information and data much quicker than a human brain ever will, AI could enable humans to do more with less energy. In a society in which time seems to become more precious that dollars, this is an interesting point to reflect upon.
Second, I shall focus on biology. Science has made some impressive progress in the last decades and the myth of the super-human seems closer than ever. Could it be that in just a few decades, we will be able to choose our baby’s genes, delay ageing or completely eradicate long-known diseases? While this last option seems attractive -who has never dreamed of eliminating cancer once and for all-, there are some important downsides to think about. The case of two Chinese twin girls born after their genes were modified at the embryo-stage, in November 2018, shows that scientific progress raises some important ethical questions. While people could use the modification of genomic information for “enhancements”, it could also raise inequality, both among countries and among genders. Besides, it could also impact population sizes, increasing the risk of overpopulation in already overpopulated countries such as China or India: why die at 80, when you can live until 200 years old?
So what have I learnt?
Hence in this short article, I have tackled Artificial Intelligence and biology, and shown to what extent these forces will shape the future of our post-digital society. While they represent some exciting challenges for the decades to come, they also pose some serious ethical questions. I believe the biggest danger of post-digital advances would be to fall into hubris, that tentation of “playing God” which used to be so firmly condemned in the Ancient Greece times. Far from being easy to address, such projections need to be discussed and debated in order for such improvements to be well-integrated into future societal practices.