Houston Matters

Are we really sure Skynet won’t go active if we do this?

A conference at Rice explores the social implications of leaps forward in science and technology.

Rendering of a DNA strand
Pixabay
Genetic engineering is the science of manipulating DNA with technology.

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From the atomic bomb to genetic engineering to generative A.I. and beyond, we're pretty good at scientific and technological advancement. We're not always so hot at recognizing the social and environmental impacts those advancements can have.

The latest De Lange Conference at Rice University will explore that Feb. 9-10, focused on topics ranging from synthetic biology, to the use of data and surveillance, to climate change, and governing genetic engineering.

In the audio above, we learn more from conference chair Luis Campos, a Baker College Associate Professor for History of Science, Technology, and Innovation at Rice.

He says, in developing this year's conference, he’s been looking back at what's known as the Asilomar meeting from 1975. That meeting brought figures from a variety of disciplines (scientists, legal experts, journalists, and more) together to discuss how to develop genetic experiments responsibly.

That meeting came in the decades after the development of the atomic bomb, debate over which has returned to the public's consciousness a bit more viscerally in the last year thanks to the film Oppenheimer, and the book it’s based on, American Prometheus. This week’s conference comes in the shadow of a worldwide pandemic that was exactly the kind of thing scientists at that 1975 meeting were worried about, which was also prompted by a book and film, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

Campos also notes that concerns raised about developing technology are cyclical. Failures to regulate the Internet, smart phone app permissions, fast-tracked drugs, and generative AI may only be more contemporary examples of letting a technological or scientific genie out of the bottle and only later turning to lawmakers who often don't even understand the technology to try to control them. Campos says these same concerns were noted a century ago by author H.G. Wells, who documented worries about the unintended consequences of the invention of the automobile.