Technology

The 21st Century – The Turning Point?

Today, science is developing at an incredible rate, and offers promising prospects in the future, including: in medicine, in nano-, cyber-, and biotechnology, in communication, and perhaps the most exciting of all, mankind’s ascension into outer space. However, as well as these enthralling benefits, any scientific or technological progression often results in a drawback. Any scientific or technological progression can be exploited to induce terror and destruction upon the world, even if done unintentionally.

Throughout history, there have been a myriad of scientific developments, and progressions, and though they brought benefits, they also (albeit more subtly) brought us threats, in the form of malevolently exploited technology or scientific progression. However, none of these threats brought about as much destruction as the natural hazards present in this world: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, droughts, floods, and so on, all outstripped the level of destruction resulted through the threats induced by humans, until the 20th century. As the result of the two world wars, it is estimated that roughly 187 million people died, which is a far higher number than any natural disaster (or two) in world history. The reason for this? The technology of the 20th century. The IBM systems (IBM has been making systems since 1888) in Germany allowed the Germans to identify the Jews, resulting prosecution, whereas the planes and ships were all modified into fighters and warships respectively, resulting also the death of millions.

Another fundamental point about any technological or scientific progression is that once it has been exploited, it is intractable. A realistic example of this is the nuclear threat, which is still present today. Discovered by Einstein and a group of brilliant scientists, it was regarded as an enormous leap in scientific progress, but unfortunately, it was also an enormous leap towards catastrophe after people realised they could utilise this new science as a tool for destruction. Once USA used this weapon to end the war in 1945, it instantly became intractable, as other countries also wanted to gain this power, as they feel they would be under threat if they did not possess it. This new technology very nearly resulted catastrophe in the Cold War: many experts believe that the chances for an all out nuclear war was nearly as high as fifty percent. Unfortunately for us, this threat did not subside over the years; in fact it remains a serious problem for the world today. Naturally, all countries acquire some form suspicion between them, augmenting the difficulty factor of agreements and putting it nearly beyond possibility. And, ultimately, it is the countries that decide whether or not to dismantle their weapons; it is difficult to pressurise any country with such weapons to dismantle them, without utilising some sort of equal terror.

The point of introducing the concept of the nuclear threat is to convey that we already possess the power to wreak havoc in this planet. More horrifyingly perhaps, is the fact that this threat is extremely widespread across the planet; almost anyone with the money could tap upon its powers. This produces an extremely delicate balance; talks and diplomacy between countries halting expansions in nuclear weapons hold this together. However, some may argue that the world is finally slipping off the knife’s edge in the event of the running out of fossil fuels. Through this event, a new debate has arisen: some urge to use the ‘non-polluting’, efficient nuclear energy and others suggest the usage of renewable energy in contrast. Through the complete usage of nuclear energy, one may argue that the nuclear threat will easily increase at least tenfold, due to the fact that almost every country will possess nuclear weapons. Through the suggestion of nuclear energy being the utter replacement of energy resource, the world’s obsession over nuclear weapons and energy is clear. One must also realise that whereas a nuclear weapon can be dismantled, it is much more difficult to erase it from existence. Combining these two facts, a looming question might occur: what will happen if a conflict sparks out between the countries? Will it result a nuclear war, confirming our destruction? The C21st may give us the answer.

The sole reason I also delved into the history of the nuclear bomb is to express the point that in the past, due to a sudden grasp of new power in the event of new technological progression, the world was very nearly destroyed. What would happen, in the 21st century, if some new scientific progression came into being, allowing exploitation for military or terrorist usages? You may think that is unlikely, given that only one invention out of such a long period of time was produced that could possibly lead to Doomsday. However, technological and scientific progression has built up to such a point that in the near future, many developed progressions may be potentially dangerous enough to result complete destruction if exploited, malevolently or otherwise. How will we deal with new threats in the future? Will we be lucky, like in the Cold War and reach negotiations? Or will we finally reach Doomsday as a result of our own making? Regrettably, the 21st century may present so many new threats, that even if we are lucky with one, we may not be so lucky with another.

However, potentially even more dangerous than the nuclear threat may be the threat from genetics and microbiology: the field of biotechnology. In the 20th century, we possess the knowledge to alter the gene and the chemical composition of different micro organisms: hence, it is possible to engineer viruses and other deadly microbes in the future. Although this field is still being cast back and forth between the concerned ethical group of individuals and the frustrated scientists, it is making steady progress. Almost every week in newspapers, there exists some sort of new biotechnological progress, whether it’s a glowing rat, or a mouse with a sprouted ear on its back. Also, due to the increasing knowledge in this field, governments are casting multibillion dollar investments in biodefence, which naturally means ‘bio offence’ hence attracting millions of skilled biologists in this field, causing the speed of progression in the branch of biotechnology to increase as time flows by.

The reason this progression in biotechnology may be more dangerous than the public realise is due a few reasons. Firstly, once a step has been made in this field, it is instantly available to hospitals, laboratories, and research centres almost globally, causing it to be easily available to any individual with malevolent motives. Secondly, is the fact that since sources of destruction are so widespread, it is also extremely difficult to track the culprit of the crime. Another dilemma that arises with a possible intentional release of microbe in the future is the disconcerting fact that diseases are usually detected when it is already relatively widespread, hence limiting the effectiveness of which it can be eliminated. Even if the disease is detected at an early stage, it cannot be stressed enough that the public conception towards a deadly virus is understandably fear, which could result a huge public crises; but to not inform the public about a new microbe may result even deadlier consequences, presenting the government with an extremely difficult dilemma, which is augmented by the need to destroying the virus or any deadly microbe. Surely, you might question, if such a deadly item for destruction was created, the government would keep quiet about it, to restrict the access of certain individuals who would want to possess it? However, even if restrictions are placed, through illegal methods easily utilised today they can be breached.

Whereas in the previous paragraph, we were discussing the threat of intentional biological terror, the unintentional region is equally potentially catastrophic. The fact that this branch of science is a relatively new one cannot be stressed enough. Due to that fact, errors and unpredictable outcomes may be quite frequent. Indeed, in 2001, in attempt to sterilise laboratory mice, all the experiment mice died as a result. This may seem a relatively small problem in comparison to the nuclear threat, but what if those scientists were, instead of attempting the sterilisation of mice, were in fact attempting to create a counteract microbe for a major disease? The problem with this field of science is that there are yet so many mysteries to be solved, and so many more mistakes to be made before we are able to have any control over it. The difficulty with biotechnology is that, the easily committed (albeit perhaps unintentionally) mistakes can easily be a mistake that leads us to our doom.

An equally worrying threat may be the field of cybertechnology. The problem with society today, is that this technology is addictive. Once some a faster processor or a greater deducing operating system is achieved, the public want more, and hence technological gurus, and experts, in turn, build faster, better, simpler technology. This way, 20th century technology could easily progress to a hazardous level: most people become more concerned about satisfying the demand instead of worrying about the future they feel they are not part of. The problem with any progression or its inventor however, is the fact that most technological experts are blind to their own progression’s potential danger. For example, a program or processor with the power of a human brain is appealing: it can be used to solve problems unable to be solved by us. The way it can do this is through a basic method of brute force: the fact is that a computer can process a lot more information efficiently through themselves than a human possible could: thus creating more of a possibility of a feasible solution to our problems.

Admittedly, even a computer or program with the intelligence to the level of a baby human would be remarkably benefiting to the society today, although in a period of time, this technological progression would prove extremely hazardous to humanity in general. This is due to the fact that if the computer or program has the intelligence of a human, and the processing power of a computer, its ability to learn and think would be at an amazing level, easily outstripping even the smartest humans. Once this progression has reached beyond the level of human intelligence, it may become the last invention we may ever create: it could easily (through superior intelligence and processing power) redevelop itself and further create an upgraded version of itself, effectively ‘taking over’ humanity.

Artificial organs are already available to the world, such as the artificial heart, which was presented interestingly in the 2nd November 2006 Times newspaper. We now have the power to effectively create an artificial replica of an organ or most vital parts of the body, which through the process of engineering is possibly even more efficient than the original ones. Indeed, it is no possible to even create an artificial human through appearance, an android today. Although this may not seem like a threat, and indeed, it is not at present, it may be one in the future. Combined with the possibilities of cybertechnology and the possibilities of biotechnology, artificial implants of the brain could be made, and artificial arms and legs could also be created. The result of that possibility could create a split race of the homosapien, making them effectively physically superior and quicker to process with equal intelligence, which could present a difficulty in the future, as one species may attempt to overcome the other. This may seem highly unlikely possibility, but with two presently separate fields of science progressing at such high speeds, creating such dangerous possibilities of catastrophe, it is not surprising that someone intentionally or otherwise may combine these two branches of technology together.

We are now entering an era, where one individual through a slightest mistake or misjudgement can effectively kill millions of people, cause a complete global crash through cyberspace, and render entire cities and state to be uninhabitable through biological threats. This may not seem worrying in the future, as the probability of this factor is not too high of someone in a high position of power making such a serious mistake, however, one must also consider the individuals and the co operations that have a malevolent aims, who can also harness this mechanisms of destruction. Who would want to utilise such horrendous threats to kill at such a large scale for no reason? In the past, Hitler did. Stalin did. Now, possibly even more frightening, in their hundreds of thousands, terrorists do. In present day, terrorists do not seem like they have the power to destroy a country. However, as time progresses, as we enter the 21st century, their ability to do so is highly augmented through possible progressions in technology and science: biotechnology and cybertechnology. Now, all the terrorists have to do is to possess a few lumps of enriched uranium or plutonium, and the whole world would grovel in fear. Fortunately, these materials are (right now) fairly difficult to obtain, and in the case of plutonium, difficult to operate. However, in the future, when the terrorists can easily obtain a deadly engineered virus from a laboratory, break into a globally regular nuclear power station and steal a few lumps of uranium, make deals with the right individuals and gain superior physical properties and greater intelligence, our safety may not seem so certain.

Other than the factors discussed above, the threat to the world is also growing due to several other reasons. Firstly, in correlation with my point above, the destructive potential of any individual specialising in the field of genetics, microbes, and computer would increase in direct proportion to the advancing of science and technology, secondly, due to the fact that society today is globally becoming more independent (which augments the risk factor of the point mentioned previously), and thirdly, due to our advanced (again due to technological progression) communications and media, any disaster, however remote it is, can spread at astonishing speeds, and can effectively cause a huge psychological impact to the rest of the world.

While the direct human threats are of fundamental importance, one must also consider how the human caused natural threats would affect us in the near future. Due to our advanced medical progression over the past centuries, the result is a huge raise of population, now being 66 billion people, while in the 1970s, it was almost half the amount. This has caused huge problems: increase of waste, pollution and destruction of the land and natural habitats, which links inevitably with the factor of global warming. Much research shows that the natural disasters: droughts, hurricanes, floods have increased dramatically in just the 20th century, and this will continue on throughout the 21st century, with greater amounts.

The factor of global warming altogether a much more serious threat that is publicly discussed confirmed and reconfirmed by scientists. Global warming again conveys the factor of scientists and inventors being blind to the ramifications of their own progressions: in this case factories and machines in the past and current industrial revolutions. However, the horrendous factor that may confirm our doom is that even though the downside of the invention is spotted, the inventor or scientist may do nothing about it in order to gain more profit or benefit. This is essentially the factor that is causing the global warming to be a problem so difficult to be solved: businessmen and large enterprises often want to gain more profits, no matter the cost.

Also, the difficulty in solving the global warming issue also lies within the factor of international agreement: it is difficult to come to an agreement where almost everyone is satisfied with. A highly worrying factor is linked within the third world countries, which do not possess enough money to cut back in pollution rates. In order to survive, many people in Africa for example are forced to slash and burn methods to cut down trees and burn them as a source of fuel, which heightens the level of carbon dioxide and various other greenhouse gases, hence contributing to global warming. As early as the 21st century, global warming may begin to take serious effect. A well known result is the melting of polar ice caps, causing a significant rise in sea level is now already a clich╬╣ saying of an environmentalist, the rises of temperature leading to the destruction of wildlife and plants, and possibly humans in some places are almost as well known. It is feasible that this problem may be solved in the future, but with so many difficulties which are globally functioning, it may require much more effort than present to do so.

However, despite all these threats towards disaster, a road to recovery will still be achievable, though it requires a fundamental sacrifice that all, especially those pioneering in the technological field, and those with excessive money must pay. In order to deal with these problems that will take effect in the 21st century, everyone: governments, co operations, individuals and countries musts come to an international agreement, and become prepared to sacrifice their leisure, comforts in the sake of saving the planet. Governments and countries must effectively also care about other countries too, and fund them with money in order to solve global warming, and must reach negotiations at all costs to reduce the possibility of war (thus reducing the probability in usage of bio warfare, nuclear weapons, cyber war etc.). In order to prevent new threats in the future or development of existing threats, scientific progression may need to come to a halt. These conditions are extremely difficult to meet, and in this time, nigh impossible. However, at the time of global crisis, people may become more willing to sacrifice, and a road to recovery may become possible.

In conclusion, in the 21st century, we will be in an age where, through scientific and technological progression, our world will become a hold where disaster can spark out anytime, due to the myriad threats which we will be subjected with, including: biotechnology, cybertechnology, nuclear threat, terrorism, and natural hazards. However, it is due to this fact that our choices will be the things that are vital in this century. Where will science take us in this century? Will we, through lack of concern walk towards the path of destruction? Or will we, through the making of fundamental choices walk towards the path of recovery? We will never know until it occurs, but the 21st century is truly our turning point.

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