Social changes unleashed by new technologies could undermine core human values unless we engage with science, warns author
Imagine a two-tiered society with elite citizens, genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill humans. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, but the world could be sleepwalking towards this scenario, according to one of Britains most celebrated writers.
Kazuo Ishiguro argues that the social changes unleashed by gene editing technologies, such as Crispr, could undermine core human values.
Were going into a territory where a lot of the ways in which we have organised our societies will suddenly look a bit redundant, he said. In liberal democracies, we have this idea that human beings are basically equal in some very fundamental way. Were coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others.
Ishiguro spoke to the Guardian ahead of the opening of a new permanent mathematics gallery at the Science Museum in London, which features a machine to predict coastal storm surges built by his oceanographer father, Shizuo Ishiguro.
The author hopes that the 5 million exhibition, and others like it, will encourage people to engage with the process of science and its future trajectory, rather than simply tuning in for the headline results of research and only then worrying about the implications.
Despite the atom bomb and things like this, were still in the habit of compartmentalising scientific endeavour, he said. Its important that we, as a society, get much more interested in science and maths, that we dont silo it off in our minds … until theres some breakthrough product that turns up.
Ishiguro cites three areas – gene editing, robotics and Artificial Intelligence – that he believes could transform the way we live and interact with each other over the next 30 years.
We are on the brink of all kinds of discoveries that will completely alter the way we run our lives, said the author, whose 2005 book, Never Let Me Go, imagines a dark future in which humans clones are raised to be organ donors.
The gene editing tool, Crispr, allows scientists to cut, paste and delete single letters of the genome with unprecedented precision, meaning aberrant genes can be overwritten with working copies, and, potentially, functional genes replaced with enhanced versions. Chinese scientists are already trialling the technology in patients to treat lung cancer.
When you get to the point where you can say that person is actually intellectually or physically superior to another person because you have removed certain possibilities for that person getting ill or because theyre enhanced in other ways, that has enormous implications for very basic values that we have, said Ishiguro.
He also has concerns that in AI and robotics the bulk of intellectual capital lies with the Silicon Valley masters of the universe rather than universities or government-funded labs.
There are some very powerful and rich people who want to do enormous research in this area, he said. Some of them might want to come out with things that are very beneficial, but its probably outside of regulation and so, yes, I think society as a whole needs to be more engaged.
Ishiguros father, an oceanographer originally based in Nagasaki, moved with the family to Guildford, Surrey, to work at the National Institute of Oceanography in 1957, when Ishiguro was five.