As we step into the year 2104 our minds are grappling with a future arriving so fast we're playing evolutionary catch-up just to stay current. While cable news taunts viewers with the same old made-up political battles, the most enjoyable thing about being alive now is that our near future is far more exciting, frightening, and just plain interesting than any politically spun story by media organizations attempting to gain audience share or just promote political agendas.
Glancing backwards in our rearview mirrors, the twentieth-century becomes clearer and often more naive as it recedes. Robots were predicted, and interactive machines are getting smarter every year. Flying cars seemed like the coolest things going, and they still do. Star Trek forecast mobile phones, but they called them 'communicators' which is what they've become (plus so much more). It wasn't until 1982 when science fiction writer William Gibson touched on the idea of the Internet by coining the term 'cyberspace.' Like Einstein said, "Ideas are in the air."
Thanks to the Internet, and the current tech wave that gave us the mobile web and apps for everything, the world is as connected a place as it's ever been. In a world that changes in nanoseconds, and where many humans prefer to live in an idealized past rather than the exciting future, we must think about things like figuring out a workable ethos for society to deal with the fast-approaching future. Here are a few questions worth debating on your next dinner party or trip to the bar.
1. Should Designer Babies be Legal, or How Close to Cloning Is Too Close?
We've reached the pivot point where discussions about the notion of designer babies has become an almost-reality. For years the opportunity to screen embryos for diseases and gender has been available. But as for enhancing and greatly altering a future offspring, it's still in the realm of Hollywood sci-fi movies. Stories of changing an unborn child's eye color make for sensational journalism, but most couples are more concerned with the overall health of their child to risk cosmetic DNA alterations. Living in a risk vs. reward world, it's easy to see rewards winning out in a hyper-competitive world where wealthy parents consider their pre-school selection as the first step toward their child's Harvard degree. While altering eye color may not be as tempting as boosting a child's capacity for learning or genetic safeguards to prevent diseases, when given a choice to make their offspring more adaptable to the future, the uber-wealthy may only have to ask themselves if they can afford it.
It won't be long before the latest divide between the haves and have nots will extend to the advantageous alterations of an unborn fetus, where just the right amount of DNA tweaking can give a child the potential for genius level intellect or Olympian level athletic performance. At what point should a parent be limited in shaping their child's future? The Supreme Court in 2045 won't be deciding on the legality of abortions, but on 'embryonic genetic enhancements' and 'alterations of the unborn.'
2. Should Violent Criminals Be Forced to Have Their Minds Corrected?
We're almost to the point where neuroscience can unlock some of the more in-depth workings of the mind. Soon, the fog of mental illness that drives disturbed individuals to commit mass murder or become lifelong criminals will be better understood. When serial killing and criminality as a whole are seen as a biological issue rather than a social problem, do the courts or the doctors step in to change behavior for the good of society?
The iconic image from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, shows Alex strapped into a chair with his eyes pinned open, forced to watch violent images while being given 'medication' through an eyedropper. The film asks whether behavior modification works out for the best for society and the individual, or does it lead to unintended consequences. If a serial killer is identified to have an array of mental disorders, and his mind is altered by surgery, is he the same person after the procedure has been applied? Does the state or does an outside doctor decide whether or not a criminal qualifies for mandatory brain surgery? Would an incarcerated killer jump at the chance to have his brain wiped clean? And if a mind is completed altered, is the person who committed the crime still in there?
One researcher currently taking on this topic is David Eagleman, the Director of the Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is investigating how discoveries in neuroscience can reinvent the law-making process, improve ways of punishing criminals, and develop new methods of rehabilitation.
3. Who's In Charge of Watching the Watchers?
Over the past year we've found out that our government overreached in spying on...well, everyone -- ordinary citizens, leaders of foreign governments, and maybe a few bad guys. We've also been made more aware of just how easily the personal information we willingly provide to retail stores can be stolen in massive data hacking schemes. If we talk on the phone, shop online, or use a computer to any degree, we're being tracked. Worldwide surveillance is now a matter of everyday reality. So who should be in charge of this mega amount of meta-data? Google? The NSA? Each new administration that enters the White house? Walmart? Hollywood?
Connected living has given people countless opportunities, and now we're seeing the darker side of living in a constantly connected digital world. Whether one believes in the confirmation of intrusive spying that came as a result of the Snowden leaks, or one thinks of him as a traitor to his country -- a large part of the data mining and surveillance conversation would not be happening without Edward Snowden.
The government has been shown to stretch and distort the truth when it comes to surveillance programs, and without verifiable trusted oversight, people are right to feel as if they are being watched, open to hacking, and in a virtual landmine field on the web. Why wasn't more information given to the American people sooner? And who is ethical enough to watch the watchers?
Democracy works because it involves many voices, is a messy, never-ending process, and it at least attempts to distribute power evenly. If democracy means more people outside government must help to solve our surveillance and security problems, let's welcome their voices and get them involved. The future's here, and people want their technology to be useful to them, not used against them.