Niels Bohr famously said, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” But Szilard showed that prediction is not only possible, but essential. It is vital to anticipate what scientific and technological discoveries may lurk around the corner, consider what the possible consequences of these developments may be for society, and identify steps to avoid or minimize the negative impacts while maximizing the positive.
I had the good fortune to serve for five years in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration. During that time it became apparent that we were entering a new industrial revolution characterized by emerging technologies in various domains:
- Microelectronics and software: cyberattack; block-chain; virtual and augmented reality; artificial intelligence and machine learning for computer speech and vision, robotics, autonomy, synthetic media (e.g., deep fakes and misinformation); sensors; storage, retrieval, and movement of massive amounts of information;
- Advanced manufacturing: additive manufacture, nanotechnology, microfluidics, microreactors, fiber lasers;
- Space: microsatellites for visual and radar imagery and global wireless communication;
- Biotechnology: genome sequencing, bioinformatics, synthetic biology, genome editing;
- Neuroscience: neuroimaging, human-machine interfaces, cognition enhancement; and
- Quantum: sensors, communications, computers.
An exploration of these technologies and their possible social consequences would require several volumes. I will mention just a few examples to hint at the magnitude of the technological revolution currently underway.
Originally published in the July 2021 edition of Physics and Society, Vol. 50, No 3, pages 6-9.