Fifty Nobel Prize winners recently listed what they believe are the greatest risks to humankind. What I find significant is that most of them unwittingly pointed the finger at the unintended consequences of our science and technology.
Of the top 11 dangers the Nobel laureates flag, fully seven implicate humanity’s wayward innovations: environmental degradation caused by people; nuclear warfare; drug-resistant disease-producing organisms; the proliferation of fake news via the internet; artificial intelligence; powerful habit-forming drugs; and Facebook’s potential widespread invasion of privacy.
Being a physicist, I hasten to note this is not how it was supposed to turn out.
As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I was captivated by Disney’s Tomorrowland. The monorail. Flight to the Moon. General Electric’s Carousel of Progress. The message being hyped to the theme park’s wide-eyed attendees was clear and simple: science was the savior of the world; it was going to make life easier, safer and better for everybody.
In many ways, science has delivered on the promise. I can now step into a plane and within hours be anywhere in the world. The lifespans of many people have increased dramatically because of improved sanitation and medical care. Automated space-borne envoys and sentries have treated us to stunning, close-up photos of our cosmic neighborhood and help protect us from space weather. And on and on.
Yet in my lifetime that very same scientific prowess has unsealed a legion of Pandora’s boxes with consequences that now threaten our very existence. For instance, iatrogenesis – any affliction caused by medical treatment gone awry – is now the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. For victims, a state-of-the-art medical cure proved to be worse than the disease.