Scientist: Technology can solve problems, introduce new ones

Technology may help solve climate change, but it can also lead to robots that handle jobs now completed by humans

Technology holds the ability to solve some of society's problems, but can generate new issues or require measures that people are unwilling to take, said Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center, during a Friday talk at the World Futurist Society conference in Boston. The end result is that humans are "in the midst of a wholly unexpected technology revolution."

Bushnell's wide-ranging talk covered topics including climate change, robotics and education, and how technology has affected each area.

Bushnell focused on the need to address climate change and develop renewable energy resources. Without solving these problems, cities located on bodies of water will be flooded and humans will need to adjust to living in a warmer climate. Technology can be used to improve the environment, but governments and people do not want to adopt large-scale policies.

"We can't fix these things without big ideas," he said. "We are obsessed with minutiae."

Robots and automation will improve production methods and ultimately help lower the cost of goods, Bushnell said. However, "we're making machines that are more productive than us," he said. This will ultimately lead to a "sea change" in how people lead their lives.

As machine intelligence approaches human intelligence, more advanced and productive robots will handle greater duties. But unemployment will rise as robots handle more tasks that are now handled by humans.

"I try to determine what jobs robots can't do. The answer is none," Bushnell said.

While robots perform jobs once completed by humans, such as bank tellers and gas station attendants, teachers, pilots and soldiers will eventually be replaced by machines.

"I can tell you more and more engineering jobs are being automated," he said.

With more people unemployed, they can spend their free time in three-dimensional virtual worlds since virtual reality covering the five senses will allow vacations that simulate the real experience of sitting on a tropical beach.

Those who still hold jobs will most likely telecommute and use the Internet to conduct even more aspects of their lives, such as shopping and receiving medical care.

Education will also not be immune from technology. Bushnell's version of learning is conducted in virtual environments where students can learn physics with renowned scientists. They will learn on software that was written by some of society's keenest minds, who created applications that motivate students to learn.

"The brick-and-mortar education system is not sustainable," he said. "It has to go virtual. It's not worth saving because we can do it far better virtually."

The era of technology and medicine is already here, he said, as people receive artificial retinas and hearing implants. Technology has even made its way to the brain as chips are implanted in the organ to repair faults.

Bushnell predicted that in 10 years silicon implants will start being implanted in human brains. This will allow society to connect to a complex network of computers and give people omniscience.

While attackers target computers now, in the future they would go after brains that are infused with technology. Bushnell mentioned that a technology-biology terrorist attack is a possibility in an integrated world.

Bushnell said that while some of what he discussed may not come to pass, the only way to see what happens is to live and see what develops.

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Fred O'Connor

IDG News Service
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