Look 10 years into the future and make some predictions. Will we have 3D printed cars? Will we have robotic pharmacies, implantable mobile phones, 3D-printed liver transplants? Will we have machines that read our mind?
We are about to witness a Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will impact every aspect of society. Will the world be better for it, or worse?
“Computers aren’t competitors,” computer scientist Justine Cassell, “they’re collaborators.” Technology has created a different kind of workplace, where employees are distributed around the globe, and we’re forced to collaborate with people from other countries. "The Fourth Industrial Revolution can bring back skills that are essential for the workplace of the future," she says.
We have to make technology work for us, and not the other way around, adds Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist. We can use it to improve people lives – for instance by removing the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s Disease. The challenge is how to do that ethically, fairly.
The future of gene editing
CRISPR can be used by almost any high-school student, for very little money, and could change the genome of every mosquito on the planet in just a few years.
Hank Greely, Professor of Law from Stanford University, says: “We now have the power to change life, to change the genetic code of every living being on the planet. But for non-human beings, the regulation is very poor, and needs to catch up.
“We need the legal and regulatory norms that will help guide innovation in the right direction, but if we move too quickly, we’re in danger of stifling innovation. However, if we wait too long, we’re in danger of allowing harm to be done.
“Conferences like Davos play an important role: we need to talk to each other, across boundaries. The difference between speaking genetics and speaking law is as great as the difference between speaking English and speaking German.”
To err is human
New technologies are going to change our perception of when human life begins and ends, says philosophy professor Angela Hobbs. “It’s part of the human condition to extend the boundaries of what it is to be human.”
“Do we want to stick with human values?" she asks. "Because we’re not doing so great, at the moment. We need to think about what it means to live a flourishing life – as sentient beings, not necessarily just as humans. Technology can help us achieve that.”
What will life be like in the future, asks Schwab, when sensors are everywhere and personal privacy is a thing of the past? If we feel constantly watched, will it make us change our behaviour?
Hobbs thinks not: “Not long ago the vast majority of people on the planet felt they were being watched by God, or other forces, who could see into their bedrooms and into their darkest thoughts. I think we have more privacy now.”
So what have we learned?
“There are lots of different ways of being human," says Greely. "The core is self-awareness … our curiosity, compassion – those emotional things are what makes us human."
Hobbs agrees: “What it means to be human is always going to change. You have to actualize your best emotional and physical potential, whatever that is."