When technology takes over
January 25th 2018, 17:39
Technology has drastically altered the lives of most humans on the planet. Infant mortality has plummeted, with most babies in the developed world now surviving birth and their early years. Agricultural and food technology makes sure more people are fed than we ever thought possible. And when we start to ail in later life, technology gives us a better chance of staying alive.
Pharmaceuticals and vaccines are currently the most important part of our healthcare armory, but will our children and grandchildren rely on them as heavily as us, or more heavily? I doubt it.
It's a controversial view in some quarters—and perhaps not dissimilar from views about the oil industry, which has been closely allied to the pharma industry for nearly a century. While our fossil fuel reserves now look bigger than we thought just a decade ago, concerns over climate change, our ability to eke out more oil and gas from existing reserves—including by fracking—as well as the increasing availability of renewables, especially solar and wind, mean the future of oil is far from assured.
Some government officials are convinced that electric vehicles should replace gas and particularly diesel-burning engines due to the levels of pollution in our cities, which are causing alarming levels of disease and premature death.
But this just shifts the problem somewhere else—to the power station that produces the power in the first place, usually from oil, gas or nuclear fission.
This is the kind of scenario that breeds innovation—and it is human innovation that has so far averted a range of Doomsday scenarios.
We'll need plenty of innovation to deal with feeding the projected nine billion people on our planet in 2050. But it's not just a question of feeding these people; it's keeping them calm
and in some reasonable state of health.
The recent evidence of spectacular failure of the newest generation of cancer drugs, the single most costly category of drugs for healthcare systems in industrialized countries, reminds us that pharma technology possibly doesn't cut it.
Probably high on the list of reasons for these failures is the business model that underlies pharmaceuticals—and that's one based on patents. By definition, it means that a molecule or product that's developed into a drug can't be natural. It's the drugs' lack of biological compatibility that causes them to trigger side-effects.
Yet, some of the real miracles in healthcare are so much more ingenious than the often-clumsy pharmaceuticals that attempt to throw sledgehammers into the delicate molecular workings of human metabolism.
Take the so-called 'pixie dust'—otherwise known as extra-cellular matrix or ECM—that contains peptides (chains of amino acids) with the ability to help regrow limbs or organs. This isn't just the stuff of science fiction—it's reality. Search for 'pixie dust thumb' on YouTube to see how ECM helped to grow back a child's thumb after an accident. That's just an example of what's in the public domain. Stem cell-triggered limb and organ regeneration that happens offline, behind the scenes in military laboratories and hospitals, is apparently much more spectacular. But public knowledge of this would destabilize the healthcare system.
Are you one of the increasing number of people who believe that the public is being dumbed down, despite living in a world in which there's more information available than ever before? This information overload is sometimes referred to as infobesity or infoxication.
With Moore's Law predicting that computer chips get twice as powerful every two years, what a perfect time to let artificial intelligence (AI) take over from humans.
Man vs machine
Actually, it's already happening. Machine learning, as first conceived by the likes of Alan Turing in WWII, has now come of age. Machines already have cognitive capacities, based on observation-based learning that can rival humans in some areas. They don't get as easily distracted by text notifications or the latest viral cat video either. Who will program the ethics models that make decisions in your driverless car? Should you kill the electric cyclist on your side of the road to avoid the oncoming hydrogen-fueled truck?
The bottom line is that we need to tread carefully with heightened awareness. We have to remind ourselves that we can still control our own destiny and take responsibility for our own health.
We must not allow the technocrats to take over our lives—because behind their passion for maximum use of technology is a powerful profit motive. That hunger for profits has created problems for us in the past, through its lack of respect for things natural, including our bodies and our environment.
Let's keep moving forward, eyes wide open and with full knowledge of our fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as our democratic and individual power and sovereignty.