Martin Rees: We Are Living Through A Political And Scientific Transformation

Rees explores the opportunities and risks that cutting-edge science presents.

Lord Martin Rees is an astrophysicist and the former master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He sat down with The WorldPost for a wide-ranging interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Alexander Görlach: Out of all great transformations we are going through, from climate change to artificial intelligence to gene editing, what are the most consequential we are about to witness? 

Martin Rees: It depends on what time scale we are thinking about. In the next 10 or 20 years, I would say it’s the rapid development in biotechnology. We are already seeing that it’s becoming easier to modify the genome, and we heard about experiments on the influenza virus to make it more virulent and transmissible. These techniques are developing very fast and have huge potential benefits but unfortunately also downsides.

They are easily accessible and handled. It’s the kind of equipment that’s available at many university labs and many companies. And so the risk of error or terror in these areas is quite substantial, while regulation is very hard. It’s not like regulating nuclear activity, which requires huge special purpose facilities. Biohacking is almost a student-competitive sport.

I am somewhat pessimistic, because even if we do have regulations and protocols for safety, how would we enforce them globally? Obviously we should try and minimize the risk of misuse by error or by design of these technologies and also be concerned about the ethical dilemmas they pose. So my pessimism stems from feelings that what can be done, will be done ― somewhere by someone ― whatever the regulations say.

Görlach: Do you fear that this could happen not only in the realm of crime ― if we think of so-called “dirty bombs,” for example ― but could also be used by governments? Do we need a charter designed to prevent misuse?

Rees: I don’t think governments would use biotech in dangerous ways. They haven’t used biological weapons much, and the reason for that is that the effects are unpredictable.

'Over the next 10 or 20 years, the greatest transformation we are likely to live through is the rapid development in biotechnology.' Lord Martin Rees

Görlach: That brings recent Hollywood blockbusters like “Inferno” to mind, where one lunatic tries to sterilize half of mankind through a virus. 

Rees: Several movies have been made about global bio-disasters. Nevertheless, I think it is a realistic scenario, and I think it could lead to huge casualties. Disasters such as the one from “Inferno,” as well as other natural pandemics, could spread globally. The consequences of such a catastrophe could be really serious for society. We have had natural pandemics in historic times ― the “black death,” for example. The reason that governments put pandemics ― natural or artificially produced ― high on their risk register is the danger of societal breakdown. That is what worries me most about the possible impact of pandemics. This is a natural threat, of course. The threat is aggregated by the growing possibility that individuals or small groups could manufacture a more lethal virus artificially.

Görlach: So when speaking of the age of transformation, aspects of security seem paramount to you. Why is that? 

Rees: We are moving into an age when small groups can have a huge and even global impact. In fact, I highlighted this theme in my book Our Final Century, which I wrote 13 years ago. These new technologies of bio and cyber ― as we know ― can cause massive disruption. We have had traditional dissidents and terrorists, but there were certain limits to how much devastation they could cause. And that limit has risen hugely with these new bio and cyber-technologies. I think this is a new threat, and it is going to increase the tension between freedom, security and privacy.

Görlach: Let’s look at another huge topic: artificial intelligence. Is this a field where more uplifting thoughts occur to you?

Rees: In the short term, we have the issue of the disruption of the labor market due to robotics taking over ― not just factory work but also many skilled occupations. I mean routine legal work, medical diagnostics and possibly surgery. Indeed, some of the hardest jobs to mechanize are jobs like gardening and plumbing.

We will have to accept a big redistribution in the way the labor market is deployed. And in order to ensure we don’t develop even more inequality, there has to be a massive redistribution of wealth too. The money earned by robots can’t stay with a small elite ― Silicon Valley people, for instance. It should rather be used for the funding of dignified secure jobs ― preferably in the public sector ― carers for young and old, teaching assistants, gardeners in public parks, custodians and so forth. There is unlimited demand for jobs of that kind. 

'Some of the hardest jobs to mechanize are jobs like gardening and plumbing.' Lord Martin Rees

Görlach: But robots also potentially could take on the work of a nurse, for that matter.

Rees: True, they could do some routine nursing. But I think people prefer real human beings, just as we’ve already seen that the wealthiest people want personal servants rather than automation. I think everyone would like that if they could afford it, and everyone in old age would like to be cared for by a real person. 

Görlach: In your opinion, what mental capacities will robots have in the near future?

Rees: I think it will be a long time before they will have the all-round ability of humans. Maybe that will never happen. We don’t know. But what is called generalized machine learning, having been made possible by the ever-increasing number-crunching power of computers, is a genuine big breakthrough. These structures of machine learning are a big leap, and they open up the possibility that machines can really learn a lot about the world. It does raise dangers though, which people may worry about. If these computers were to get out of their box one day, they might pose a considerable threat.

Görlach: In your opinion, what sparks new innovation and ideas? Will A.I. and machines foster these processes? 

Rees: Moments of insights are quite rare, sadly. But they do happen, as documented cases suggest (laughs). There is a great saying: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” You have got to ruminate a lot before you are in a state to have one of these important insights. If you ask when the big advances in scientific understanding happen, they are often triggered by some new observation that in turn was enabled by some new technological advancement. Sometimes that happens just by a combination of people crossing disciplines and bringing new ideas together; sometimes just through luck; sometimes through a special motivation that caused people to focus on some problem; sometimes by people focusing on a new problem that was deemed too difficult previously and therefore didn’t attract attention. 

'Fortune favors the prepared mind.'

Görlach: Would you say a collective can have an idea or that only individuals have ideas? 

Rees: Many ideas may have depended on the collective to even emerge. In soccer, one person may score the key goal. That doesn’t mean the other 10 people on the team are irrelevant. I think a lot of science is very much like that: the strength of a team is crucial to enable one person to score the goal.

Görlach: Do natural sciences and humanities have the capability to tackle the challenges occurring from these transformations?

Rees: The kinds of issues we are addressing in Cambridge involve social sciences as well as natural sciences. As I said before, because of the societal effect, the consequences of a pandemic now could be worse than they were in the past, despite our more advanced medicine. Also, if we are thinking of ecological problems like food shortages, the issue of food distribution is an economic question, as well as a question of what people are ready to eat. All these things involve fully understanding people’s social attitudes. Are we going to be satisfied eating insects for protein?

Görlach: With the rising amount of aggregated data, it becomes increasingly difficult for the humanities to keep up with natural sciences. How can we synchronize the languages of different academic fields in this era of big data? 

Rees: Great question! There are impediments caused by disciplinary boundaries, and we have to encourage people to bridge these. I am gratified that we have some young people who are of this kind: philosophers who are into computer science or biologists who are interested in system analysis. All these things are very important. I think here in Cambridge, we are quite well-advantaged because we traditionally have the college system whereby we have small academic groups in each college. Each of these colleges is a microcosm, so all disciplines cross somewhat. It is therefore particularly propitious as a location for the development of cross-disciplinary work. 

How can we synchronize the languages of different academic fields in this era of big data?

Görlach: The blessings of modern innovation seem to be ignored by many policymakers; we see a retreat from globalization and a retreat from digitalization. Is it a disconnect between science and the rest of society?

Rees: The misapplication of science is a problem, of course. As well as the fact that science’s benefits are irregularly distributed. There are some people that don’t benefit, such as traditional factory workers. If you look at the welfare of the average blue-collar worker and their income in real terms ― in the U.S. and in Europe ― it has not risen in the last 20 years; in many respects, their welfare has declined. Their jobs are less secure, and there is more unemployment. But there is one aspect in which they are better off: information technologies. IT spreads far quicker than expected and led to advantages for workers in Europe, the U.S. and Africa.

Görlach: But surely globalization made many poor people less poor and a few rich people even richer.

Rees: Sure, I guess this statement can be made after 25 years of globalization. But it should also be addressed that we now witness a significant backlash in many places in terms of Brexit or the presidential election in the U.S. 

Görlach: How drastically do you think these developments will affect science, the attitude toward it and its funding? 

Rees: Many of the people who use modern information technology, such as cellphones, aren’t aware of the immense technological achievements. Back in the day, developments could be traced back to scientific innovations decades ago, which were mainly funded by either the military or the public. They may not be aware of it, but they appreciate it. So it’s unfair to say people are anti-science. They are worried about science because indeed there is a risk that some of these technologies will run ahead faster than we can control and cope with them. So there is a reasonable ground for some people to be concerned ― for example, about biotech and A.I.

But we also have to bear in mind that for technology to be developed, it’s necessary ― but not sufficient ― for a certain amount of science to be known. We can take areas of technology in which we could have forged ahead faster but haven’t because there was no demand. Take one example: it took only 12 years from the first Sputnik to Neil Armstrong’s small step on the moon ― a huge development in 12 years. The motivation for the Apollo Program was a political one and involved huge expense. Had the momentum been maintained there would have been footprints on Mars long before today. Or take commercial flying ― today, we fly in the same way we did 50 years ago, even though in principle we could all fly in supersonics.

These are two examples where the technology exists but there hasn’t been a motive ― neither political nor economic ― to advance these technologies as fast as possible. In the case of IT, there was the obvious demand, which exploded globally in an amazing way.

'There are areas of technology in which we could have forged ahead faster but haven’t because there was no demand.' Lord Martin Rees

Görlach: Living in a so-called post-factual era, what are “facts” to you as a scientist? 

Rees: In the United Kingdom, those who voted for Brexit voted that way for a variety of reasons. Some who voted for it wanted to give the government a bloody nose; others voted blatantly against their own interest. The workers in South Wales, for example, benefited hugely from the European Union. There is a wide variety of different motives but I don’t think people would say that they voted against technology.

Görlach: Still, there is this ongoing narrative about the fear of globalization and digitalization, and that would also imply the fear of technology. 

Rees: Sure, but that is oversimplified. We can have advanced technology on a smaller scale. I don’t think you can say that technology is always correlated with larger-scale globalization. It allows for robotic manufacturing, and it allows for more customization to individual demand. The internet has allowed a lot of small businesses to flow. 

Görlach: But there seems to be an increasing disconnect in many societies regarding the consensus on which facts matter and how facts are perceived. 

Rees: To understand this attitude you are expressing, we have to realize that there aren’t many facts that are clear and relevant in their own right. In most cases, I think people have reason to doubt. Most economic predictions, for example, have pretty poor records, so you can’t call them facts.

In the Brexit debate, there were a lot of valid arguments on both sides, and you can’t blame the public for being skeptical. This is also true for the climate debate. It is true that some people deny what is clear. But the details on climate change are very uncertain. Even those who agree on all will differ in their attitudes toward the appropriate policy. That depends on other things, including ethics. In a lot of recent debates, people agreed about the science. They disagree about the appropriate policies deriving from those facts. For instance, how much should we bet on a technical fix? And what long-term discount rate should we apply? What insurance premium should we pay today to remove a potentially serious threat from future generations? Opinions differ hugely.

'In the Brexit debate, there were a lot of valid arguments on both sides, and you can’t blame the public for being skeptical.' Lord Martin Rees

Görlach: But how then do you judge the developments we now see in many Western societies?

Rees: I think these developments are partly caused by new technologies that have led to new inequalities. Another point is: even if it hasn’t increased, people are now more aware of inequality. In sub-Saharan Africa, people see the kind of life that we live, and they wonder why they can’t live that kind of life. Twenty-five years ago, they were quite unaware of it. This understandably produces more discontent and embitterment. There is a segment of society, a less-educated one, that feels left behind and unappreciated. That is why I think a huge benefit to society will arise if we have enough redistribution to recreate dignified jobs. 

Görlach: What political framework do you think of as an ideal environment for science?  

Rees: In the Soviet Union, they had some of the best mathematicians and physicists, partly because the study of those subjects was fostered for military reasons. People in those areas also felt that they had more intellectual freedom, which is why a bigger fraction of the top intellectuals went into math and physics in Soviet Russia than probably anywhere else ever since. That shows you can have really outstanding scientists surviving in that sort of society. 

Görlach: So the ethical implication is not paramount to having “good” science after all? 

Rees: I think scientists have a special responsibility to be concerned about the implications of their work. Often an academic scientist can’t predict the implications of his work. The inventors of the laser, for instance, had no idea that this technology could be used for eye surgery and DVD discs but also for weaponry. Among the most impressive scientists I have known are the people who returned to academic pursuits after the end of World War II with relief but remained committed to doing what they could to control the powers they had helped to unleash.

In all cases, the scientists supported the making of the bomb in the context of the time. But they were also concerned about proliferation and arms control. It would have been wrong for them to not be concerned.

To make an analogy: if you have teenage son, you may not be able to control what he does, but you sure are a poor parent if you don’t care about what he does. Likewise, if you are a scientist and you created your own ideas, they’re your offspring, as it were. Though you can’t necessarily control how they will be applied, because that is beyond your control, you nonetheless should care and you should do all you can to ensure that your ideas, which you have helped to create, are used for the benefit of mankind and not in a damaging manner. This is something that should be instilled in all students. There should be ethics courses as part of all science courses in university.

'How much constraint are we willing to exercise, in order to facilitate the life of generations to come? Opinions differ hugely.' Lord Martin Rees

Görlach: What, then, is your motivation as a scientist? 

Rees: I feel I am very privileged to have consistently, over a career of nearly 40 years now, played part in debates on topics that I think are writing the history of science in this period. As we make great, collective, scientific progress, we are able to confront new mysteries, which we couldn’t even have addressed in the past. Many of the questions that were being addressed when I was young have now been solved. Pressing questions couldn’t even have been posed back then.

Of course the science I do is very remote from any application, but it’s of great fascination and a very wide audience is interested in these questions. It certainly adds to my satisfaction that I can actually convey some of these exciting ideas to a wider public. I would get less satisfaction if I could only talk about my work to a few fellow specialists, so I am glad that these ideas can become part of a broader culture.

Görlach: What is the best idea you ever had? 

Rees: I don’t have any sort of singular idea, but I think I have played a role in some of the ideas that have gradually formed over the last 20 or 30 years about how our universe has evolved from a simple beginning to the complex cosmos we see around us that we are a part of. For me, the social part of science is very important ― many ideas emerge out of discussion and cooperation and, of course, out of experiments and observations.

The symbiosis between science and technology ― the old idea is that science eventually leads to an application ― is far too naïve! It goes two ways, because advancements made in academics are facilitated by technology. We only made advancements beyond Aristotle by having much more sensitive detectors and being able to explore space in many ways. If we didn’t have computers or ways of detecting radiation, etc., we would have made no progress because we are no wiser than Aristotle was. 



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