The future – by Andrés Moya

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This presupposes the idea of progress

I don’t have a clear opinion about this, but it may seem -because of what I’m going to say- that I state there’s a certain progress in the dynamics of our own species, in the dynamics of biological evolution itself. Whether we are a contingent product of Nature or not, and I think we are. I always say this to my students: if dinosaurs hadn’t become extinct, today the planet would be populated by intelligent dinosaurs. How would the future have been if a cataclysm hadn’t obliterated them? We cannot exclude the possibility, a priori, that those beings could have evolved into intelligent beings. They became extinct and, coexisting with them, there were those kind of rodents which could survive and then exploded in an incredibly fast evolution, in very few millions of years. We are a product of that evolution. I won’t say there is an intrinsic progress there, but one realizes that the dynamics of the evolution of beings keeps making them more complex. Is that progress? If we focus on the progress of our own species that’s a different matter. Our species is characterized by a certain capacity, at the beginning not very intelligent, of intervening in Nature. And that capacity is becoming more intelligent. We intervene naturally in everything that surrounds us. In a certain way we are a species that makes decisions based on a set of future possibilities. On a set of options, which is related to our notion of freedom. Returning to the idea of progress: our species has intervened, is progressively intervening in Nature, with effects that have been unimportant while we haven’t been abundant. Now we’re very abundant and the effects are much more dramatic. Many of them are negative, but many others are not. I am hopeful about our capacity to intervene intelligently in Nature and, therefore, in ourselves. There’s a paper published recently which talks about these things. What’s the future of humanity? It’s in our own hands. The capacity to intervene intelligently in Nature is growing. Until now we have transformed the world with more or less intelligence, but we have no choice but to use more of it if we don’t want to disappear from the planet. Deep down, what we need to do is take the intervention to its final consequences. This could mean a frontal clash with ecologist movements or groups which talk about preserving natural spaces, about a primal Nature and about humans as an element which has been degrading the planet. But I’m under the impression that, even though there have been negative consequences and a certain degradation, we have no choice but to intervene because in an intelligent intervention lies the basis of our own preservation. I cannot predict what our species will be like in 100 or 150 years, I can’t even imagine, precisely because of the intervention capacity we’re going to have. In Genetics, which is the field I work on, there are new disciplines, new subjects such as synthetic biology, the artificial synthesis of organisms, new technologies which will allow us to act on ourselves, robotics, computation… it sounds like science fiction but I think we will witness deep transformations. I don’t know what their nature will be, socially, because I haven’t thought deeply about that. I’ve reflected on the great advancements in science. Many of them were not foreseeable by far. For example, the Internet, the connection between all the people in the world, was unpredictable and is having immense transforming consequences with effects on sociology and human behavior. Is that progress? Transformation and change in a given direction, yes. And my impression is that this capacity to intervene will only increase. To intervene and modify. Which requires deep social transformations.

Which increases with information fluxes.

We are immersed in a world of information. In computational biology we distinguish between data and information. Processing data in an intelligent way is a complex exercise. There’s a scary amount of data. It’s overwhelming but, on the plus side, we have a surplus of data which demands filtering, because we don’t have the capacity to process everything the new technologies transmit to us. In fact, this can be considered an element of human intervention in society, probably also in Nature. I start from there and I take into account the emergent sciences, particularly synthetic biology, which combines the most advanced aspects of biology with the most advanced aspects of engineering and computation, which allow us to design organisms à la carte. People are already talking about new entities, which didn’t exist before: living entities which have never existed. A product of human activity. Setting aside the ethics of this actions, where can we get to? That’s an important transformative principle. In the history of human societies, many of the changes have come from technical discoveries which could seem irrelevant. The wheel is not irrelevant, neither is the printing press. And they lie at the core of important social transformations.

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