At TEDxVienna 2013 UNLIMITED we confronted ourselves with all kinds of limits we have broken, are breaking and will break. Overcoming limits given to ourselves is a deeply rooted human characteristic throughout history; may it be our use of tools to compensate the abilities which we don’t naturally have or our continuously accelerating breakthroughs in science and technology. It is this strong trait of curiosity which has made us the species with the greatest power on this planet. And also with the greatest responsibilities.
For most parts of our history there were explanations of our world which were so fundamental and beyond question that they were perceived as inviolable laws imposed to us by nature. Like death. In one of the oldest surviving parts of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, it says “For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands” and almost every other philosophical literature tackling fate and mortality leads to the same conclusion.
It always has been one of the most basic rules of our life: that it will end at one point. While it still holds true in our times of course and immortality is still debated about whether or not it really is and will be feasible, the idea of death being a natural consequence is at least being challenged by our ever growing life expectancy and medical advancements. At our conference, Aubrey de Grey pushed forward with his perspective on the issue of aging and the theory that it could be possible to not only mitigate the health-damages induced by aging but even to stop aging itself at one point.
Another very basic perspective on our world is when it comes to meat, that it comes from animals. That this isn’t necessary anymore Mark Post has already successfully demonstrated with his first synthetic meat-tissue created in a lab. The motivation for creating synthetic meat lies in lowering CO2 and methane emission (from which a big part is due to modern livestock breeding) and also the moral premise that it’s better to create it artificially than using animals as mere factories for food and slaughter them for it .
And there is far, far more potential in the young field of synthetic biology and genetic engineering, may it be genetic breeds between goats and spiders (No, it fortunately doesn’t look like you imagine now) which could produce materials as strong and as light as the threads of a spiderweb, or may it be the biotech company Amyris, which modified yeast-cells to successfully produce Diesel.
And this is just the beginning of a revolution.
We cross such boundaries and develop radically new technologies now even on a routine basis. While every piece of technology we develop is mostly done with the motivation to contribute positively to scientific progress (or benefiting from it financially by doing so), it is an entirely other question if it then will really turn out to contribute positively in the end.
While it’s hard to argue against de Grey’s motivation even if many of us would say that they don’t want to live forever, they would still take any treatment available once being sick and thus confirming that everybody of us wants to live as long as our medical technology provides. There can be hardly argued against this. It’s another question though if it really will be feasible and what consequence it may have if we could live forever (Think of overpopulation and the energy-needs).
As for the ethical question about Post’s synthetic meat, one could also argue that vegetarianism is still a better and easier option than using this technology at all. Still most of the world’s population wants to eat meat and it probably will be better to give them the option between these two (where the synthetic probably will be even cheaper at one point). Lowering methane-emission and not killing animals on an industrial scale is the advantage here for which we would trade in our basic concept of meat and embrace synthetic biology. But once we got going with synthetic biology, where would we stop?
It gets harder yet with the spider-goat creature where we have to balance the need and benefits from such a strong material this technology could provide against the ethical questions arising by mixing genetics of animals like we would do with chemical formulas. And what if such material would indeed fulfill its expectations? Then the needs for it would result in spider-goats being bred on an industrial scale again and thus we would get the same problem with lots of methane-emission again which artificial meat tried to eliminate before.
So, it’s not only ethical questions but furthermore ecological and economical ones too. Especially when it comes to Diesel being produced by the genetically modified yeast-cells. Is it really a good idea to further continue polluting our atmosphere with CO2? Are we really that desperate to try keep up with the current status Quo by any means and cling to these fuels instead of investing in research on renewable energy?
It is always very, very hard to assess whether a new piece of technology or scientific break-through will indeed contribute positively overall to us and our environment or if it will turn out to have negative consequences which weren’t or couldn’t have been seen before. We are always standing at one point in time, the present, and are never able to fully anticipate the future and the complex outcomes of our actions.
How true this is, you especially notice when looking back at future-predictions from the past. They are ridiculous to observe, since we now know of course how they turned out. The use of asbestos now seems really foolish, but it didn’t back then. Neither did Thomas Midgley foresee the consequences of several of his inventions, most famously Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs for which he was applauded back then, but which turned out to be hugely responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer. Or have a look at this old educational video about nuclear energy in which it is being portrayed as a savior and a step towards an energy utopia:
Gains vs risks
Every new invention, every limit we break, not only gives us chances but also risks. Avoiding and foreseeing them in all details is impossible and should always serve as a reminder that we have to take as many considerations into context as possible when applying them. This shall not be an argument against all these brave and highly potential possibilities demonstrated but rather a call for not being blinded by the promises many technologies seem to have at first glance. Our problems can’t be solved neither by fear and rejection of technological advancements nor by radical techno-optimism but rather by discussing them as rationally and holistic as possible.
Overcoming our limits is one of our deepest human natures, but one which has made us equally powerful as fragile. And that is what we always need to keep in mind.