An Emerging Technological and Societal Transition:
Preparing for the Post-Industrial World
Throughout history, whenever new technologies have emerged that changed our means of production and ability to communicate they have tended to transform society. The rapid technological development of the past century – in biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence – holds the promise to do the same for our current, post-industrial world.
Our political institutions, the rule of law, human rights, the banking system, our education system, and capitalism itself, are products of the industrial age. We have learnt to navigate the industrial economy as individuals, and as societies we can exert some control to define its shape and limits.
But what comes next, in a post-industrial world? Even in the past decade, digital products and services, the internet and mobile technology have changed our lives. This is the result of accumulated advances over the past 50 years; there is much more to come. For example, recent studies indicate that digitization is likely to replace about half of known jobs within 20 years.
As technologies are increasingly changing our lives, it also becomes increasingly important that scientists engage as citizens and contribute with the best possible knowledge about these changes.
Many questions about the societal consequences of new technologies we cannot give scientific answers to, but some we can, while other we probably could if we combined appropriate knowledge.
To investigate the issues above associated with the developing intelligent and living technologies, the Lorentz Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, hosted a workshop October 5th-9th, 2015. 40 leading scientists, engineers, economists, legal scholars, thinkers, and people from the arts and the media gathered, on the one hand, to develop consensus about our biggest scientific and technological challenges as well as to clarify possible conflicting perspectives; on the other hand, to develop a white paper that most stakeholders, including policy makers and media, can use.
Our workshop and our ongoing work is a science-based investigation of the interaction between the converging bio-, info-, nano-, and cogno (BINC) technologies and our societies. It is also a science-based discussion that includes sessions about how we may be able to create new narratives around the major societal changes so that the changes become meaningful to people.
Thus, we do not see our workshop as just a five-day event, but as the beginning of a bigger conversation that has to take place in our scientific communities as well as in our societies. The new technologies pose a number of challenges to democracy, human rights, social calm, and basic human dignity as life itself is being redefined technologically, while at the same time the very same technologies open doors to a cornucopia of wealth, possibilities and freedoms that previous generations couldn’t even imagine – and which we ourselves also have to stretch our imagination in order to grasp.
Some 20 students of science journalism joined the October 2015 workshop, and our work has been the subject of their studies the entire fall semester; it is our intention that they write articles and produce videos for our workshop website, contribute to public outreach and assist in the drafting of our white paper. We hope to be able to engage even more students in the future.