Because We Can

Three interesting news items have arisen in the past couple of weeks or so, and they all sparked the same reaction in me. They are each different, but each raise some of the same issues.

A scientist suggests that exploiting the oil reserves present in tar sands will make climate change unsolvable. Because we already have created a dangerous situation with climate using the oil and natural gas reserves, adding oil from tar sands increases the amount of carbon tremendously, possibly leading to irreversible climate change.

Then, there was the 3D printed pistol. For those of you not glued to your newsfeeds, basically, someone was able to use a 3D printer (still expensive, but remember when laser printers were expensive?) to create a single-shot weapon (called “The Liberator.” Sigh.) Of course, it’s not such a good gun, but it is the first. And, well, you know how technology goes.

The last is that scientists were, for the first time, able to create human stem cells from skin cells using cloning. It’s a big breakthrough, and may well lead to really important treatments. But it also paves the way for actual human cloning.

Both of these last two things are, at the moment, in questionable legal territory. There are state laws (in 13 states) that ban reproductive cloning, but no national law, except to ban funding for it. The 3D printed gun has all sorts of legal implications, and the plans were taken down, but of course, you know how how useful that is. I found at least 10 torrents with the files (that is a link to the concept of torrents, for those of you who don’t know what that word means, not the files, I won’t do that.) They are out there forever.

What’s so different now, is that all of this is inevitable. You can see it coming down the pike. And given the fact that this world is now one really small village, where we are all affected by what happens everywhere, and information moves almost instantaneously all over the globe, but at the same time, different countries have different laws, and different willingness to deal with things, we are headed for danger.

Scenario: As standard oil reserves start running out, oil will get so in demand, and so expensive, that it will be inevitable that someone will exploit them.

Scenario: Government cracks down on people distributing plans for 3D printed guns, but between 3D printers getting better, and people experimenting and getting better, making a gun that can do serious damage becomes a project someone can do in an hour in their basement. That also means that someone can create an underground business making many weapons that can’t be tracked.

Scenario: The US bans reproductive cloning, but, say, the Cayman Islands thinks it’s a great cash cow, and companies start making clones, first surreptitiously, but then out in the open. Want a child? Have a clone. (There are about a gazillion science fiction stories and novels that have this premise.)

And the quip, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” is true, and useless at the same time. You might not, but someone will. And it’s going to get worse. These are just three examples. (The robots are coming.)

So what are we to do about this? Shrug our shoulders and hope for the best? Shrug our shoulders and just wait for dystopia to catch up with us? I don’t have a good answer, but we’ve got to find a way to collectively go deep, make good decisions about where we are going as a species.