“We may never be able to control broad technological developments, but we can steer science and technology by allocating subsidies smartly, regulating the most important aspects of these developments and planning how we will adapt to a new technological world.”
– Marc Saner
The Republic, Utopia, Brave New World, Avatar — Exploring fantastic societies of the future has been a hallmark of great fiction for centuries, and emerging technologies have influenced these speculative works since the Industrial Revolution. However, what is emerging from today’s science and technology not only promises to fundamentally change the world around us, but to transform ourselves as well. The time has come to broaden the dialogue the authors began — we all have a stake in our post-human future.
Marc Saner has been pursuing multidisciplinary work at the intersection of science, ethics and governance for the better part of a decade and keeping a very close eye on game-altering technological developments. He believes that it’s one thing if technology changes objects around us—like computers, cars or hockey sticks—but quite another if these changes affect our bodies and minds. On the threshold of advances in genetics, neurotechnology and robotics that promise (or threaten) fundamental changes to us and how we see ourselves,
Saner believes that the clouds of a perfect storm between science and decisions about humanity’s future are forming on the horizon.
“To me, this storm is just as much an opportunity as it is a threat,” says Saner, inaugural director of uOttawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), and associate professor in the Department of Geography. “What is now required is to become explicit about where we want to go, to discuss which risks are necessary or worth taking and to put the topic of moral limits on the table.”
From new prosthetics for people with disabilities to improved therapies to combat illnesses of the mind and the mapping of the human genome, we are undoubtedly increasing our ability to “fix” ourselves—both inside and out, significantly extending human life and improving human performance across the board. But important social questions arise from this re-imagining of what it means to be human, including what the limits should be when it comes to human improvement and who may (or may not) have the means to afford possible human perfection.
“The potential of neurobiology and neurotechnology, for example, are real game changers,” says Saner. “A lot of benefits will come out of this research, but we will also have to increasingly face the reality that our consciousness is not what it seems to be, that personalities and capacities can be changed and that we may continually have to redefine our concepts of free will and responsibility.”
Saner’s interest in the impact of technology on society began when he worked as a risk assessor and regulator of biological and chemical products—an activity that brings home how difficult it is to combine scientific predictions, values and social considerations into practical decisions. These experiences directly led to his interest in the ethics of emerging technologies, risk management and broader governance issues. He is especially interested in the interface between scientists and decision-makers and has worked on how to combine risk and ethics in public debates, decisions and policies.
“We may never be able to control broad technological developments, but we can steer science and technology by allocating subsidies smartly, regulating the most important aspects of those developments and planning how we will adapt to a new technological world,” says Saner. “All this requires dialogue, and I think we need to start now.”
Saner doesn’t believe in wasting any time. As director of the ISSP, he is busy bringing together multidisciplinary teams to address issues at the interface of science and society. The ISSP recently hosted an international conference on the topic of synthetic biology and its policy implications. It is also a partner in the development of the 13th annual Frontiers in Research lectures, Our Post-Human Future, designed to spur debate on these pressing socio-technological issues.
“Emerging technologies and scientific advances promise to radically alter the self, whether we conceive of the self in terms of our mental faculties or our bodies,” insists Saner. “Some technological developments can be regulated by the marketplace, but the modification of human nature itself is too big an issue to leave to the ‘invisible hand’ of the economy.”
Saner is convinced that we must engage in societal direction-setting on such big issues before— or at least while—technology is being developed, not after the fact. “So, yes, let the scientists and engineers address our problems. But let’s not forget that we, as a society, also need to define who we want to be, how we want to treat each other, where we want to aim our efforts and how we can use this new technology to achieve a positive outcome for us all.”
by Sean Rushton
The University of Ottawa’s new Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) is developing a multidisciplinary and balanced education program on science, technology, innovation and society. Students will receive a broad education at the interface of science and policy provided by experts in science policy and innovation, governance and regulation, as well as from researchers studying the social implications of science and technology. The ISSP believes that such an inclusive and ideologically balanced approach fills a unique niche in Canada and will be valuable to employers in the private, public and NGO sectors. The Institute also conducts significant research, network and outreach activities. Visit the ISSP website.