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Catching Up, As the Future Catches You September 21, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in As The Future Catches You.
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While I was reading the book As the Future Catches You by Juan Enriquez, I found myself inspired by the potential of our current scientific pursuits. Since technology, science and genomics have been part of my interests from the time I was a teenager until these days, many of the discoveries and issues presented in the book were not new to me. However, rarely one finds so many of them in a single reference, let alone an analysis of their consequences in other domains of human inquiry. I believe that the growing gap between rich and poor, which will come as a result of a genetics revolution, is just the tip of the iceberg and that our generation, and our humanity, are in a state of emergency regarding the issues that underlie. The book closes assuming that we, or our children, will be able to “enjoy” the many advances in the book. Not being a pessimist, I believe they will, but only if our generation doesn’t oversee the other issues that are claiming now more than ever our immediate attention.

As I was going through the many advances and the things we are working on achieving, I found that a major trend was present, and is that of our fear to death. This fear, rooted in centuries old religious beliefs, has remained unchanged, despite the many knowledge revolutions that have occurred in the latest centuries and are portrayed to certain extend throughout the book. It is also hardwired in our brains, basically from our self preservation instincts, but in a more complex way in the egos of many individuals. Otherwise, we would be better suited to accept the realities of unexpected diseases, sudden deaths, lost loved ones. If you go back to the Hippocratic Oath, its claims were related to benefit the sick, as if Greeks were in better terms with the concepts of illness and death. I’m glad to live in a time when better prevention is available and our life expectancy has been greatly improved. However, increasing the speed at which we improve health conditions may result in a threat to that which we are trying to preserve: Life.

Now, I’m not claiming that we should stop these advances from happening. Moreover, I don’t think they can be stopped. Humans are creative enough to find their ways. At all costs we should enable that research, in a manner that is as open as possible, where we know the extent towards which that research is trying to evolve. Clandestine research only has the potential of worsening the dangers of these technologies, which as the book claims, are not kind… don’t say please. What I’m claiming is that as these advances take place, others are required to be pushed forward. We should not wait until all the challenges to human aging and health are solved for good, before we find ways to solve societal challenges that are as burdensome to our collective existence. Let’s go through a few:

  • Population Growth: We are far from coping with current growth. We should start planning how longer living, or even non-dying humans, will find space in this limited world. The colonization of other worlds might be an alternative, but we seem far behind on that, relative to the genomics revolution. We shouldn’t be counting of the space exploration happening first, although it would be great if it does.
  • Limited Resources: With the previous problem come the issues of water, food, and all of humans’ basic needs. Closing the income gap might sound like the solution, but the pending revolution seems to be just holding on a widening effect, rather than the one we need.
  • Education: The book suggests that we close the gap by making many technologically and “genomically” literate. We already have a digital divide. The previous issues will make it a harder problem to solve. But we must address it anyway. There’s no room for avoidance.
  • Health Access: At the heart of the current debate in the United States, as well as in many countries that are facing an ever increasing challenge in ensuring proper treatment for their old population, this problem will be compounded when access to the benefits of the genome revolution not only deepens the income gap, but also widens the access divide.

The last one is particularly interesting, because the book repeatedly claims that people need to understand the importance of the genome revolution before they get left behind. The truth is that it is a greater problem since many will simply not be able to afford it, even if they don’t understand it. The digital has been different in the sense that its output has been to a great extent freely available for all. There’s some interfacing cost, and of course there is the need to educate people in their use. But for the most part, anyone can jump in to create new solutions. It remains unclear how rapid, or even if, this will be the same with the genome revolution.

On one sense this might work to our advantage. If really not everyone can jump as easily, then the revolution might not be as fast. However, we can’t avoid considering that it is going to happen. Its consequences will be far greater than those set forth by any other previous revolution. Yet, our problems are the same ones that always have been. It is a state of emergency. Humanity needs to start addressing the other problems soon.

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