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Where is progress taking us?

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Since Jules Verne wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth, George Orwell wrote 1984, not to mention the many science fiction authors since then who have offered their own dystopian visions of the future, human beings have been warned not to tamper with the “natural order”. Instead of taking the lessons these authors intended seriously, science seems to have set out to create in reality the technologies that led to the sci-fi plot devices that result in fictional catastrophe.

Changing earthHumans, we seem to be convincing ourselves, are worthy of far more trust than fiction gives us credit for. With every scientific breakthrough that allows us to prolong our lives – from heart transplants, to stem cell therapies – we seem to be validating the position that we are the masters of our own destiny, and that progress is to the benefit of all humanity. Genetically modified food, the argument goes, will help feed the 7.6 billion people living on Earth.

As a result, we sweep the issues caused by progress under the carpet. The fact that our improved farming methods have resulted in hormonal imbalances that are causing children to reach puberty far to early is justified by the fact that more people have access to “better quality” food. Automation, we are told, will result in new opportunities and a better quality of life for people doing dangerous and menial work. Some optimists even are looking forward to a future in which automation will result in a universal basic income that will allow humans to spend all of their time engaged in creative pursuits, because robots will be doing all the work.

The other side to this coin, however, is already becoming evident. While we are far away from having to deal with murderous robots, recent research predicts that a third of all jobs in South Africa will be lost by 2025 as a result of automation. We are not alone, with other developing economies facing similar job losses for the same reason, and while developed economies like Sweden are already making provision for the changes automation will bring, the developing world will only find itself struggling even more to catch up.

The brave new world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is therefore already providing a double-edged sword. Progress is certainly being achieved, but at what cost?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently announced the Earth Bio-Genome Project (EBP) as part of its Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Initiative. The initiative will sequence all the plants, animals and single-cell organisms on Earth, made possible due to the exponential drop in costs of genomic sequencing. Partnering with the Earth Bank of Codes (EBC), the initiative “aims to make nature’s biological and biomimetic assets accessible to innovators around the world, while tackling bio-piracy and ensuring equitable sharing of the commercial benefits.”

The announcement follows warnings by scientists in a paper last year that a “sixth mass extinction” is under way, in which 20 000 species are in danger — a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization”. The EBC will “boost the economic incentives for local communities and global businesses to preserve the environment”, it said in a statement.

The partnership “aims to unlock the potential of the planet’s biodiversity and boost the global marketplace for bio-inspired chemicals, materials, processes and innovations that solve human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested strategies.” This includes things like harvesting the next generation of antibiotics from Amazonian frogs to combat the antimicrobial resistance threat, and pioneering self-driving car algorithms using inspiration from Amazonian ants.

These are all laudable aims, but how long will it take humans to start tweaking the genetic makeup of things? At some point, someone will figure out that removing or inserting this or that gene will help a species become more resilient, or perhaps we will decide to start breeding rhinos without horns in order to stop poaching.

Perhaps these fears are unfounded, but history dictates that there is always potential for unintended consequences. Only time will tell.

Image credit: Copyright: catalby / 123RF Stock Photo

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