Genomics, virtual reality and ethics: how progress will affect us

Four key individuals shaping the world of tomorrow offer their insights into the most significant developments

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What do you think?

Swift changes in technology — from the development of driverless cars and robotics to the collection of increasingly large amounts of data — are transforming the way we live.

We asked four distinguished thinkers who are shaping that future through their scientific and academic research, writing and entrepreneurship, to predict what aspects of this new industrial revolution will affect us most.

Will women benefit or lose and which ethical questions will we have to answer most urgently?


Prof Paula Hammond

Prof Paula Hammond, head of the department of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Her research seeks to deliver ant-cancer therapies in a more targeted and therefore less destructive manner. She says that gene editing to address genetic disorders and cancer is a key emerging technology. “Genomics as medicine is really where it’s at.”

She cites Crispr, a gene-editing tool that was named breakthrough of the year 2015 by Science magazine, as an example.

This technology will raise broad ethical questions and prompt difficult and personal questions for parents-to-be, especially mothers.

“We need to ensure that enabling science doesn’t go beyond the concept of helping mankind. From governments to the general public, this is something we all have to engage in,” Prof Hammond says.

Many women, including Martha Lane Fox, the UK web pioneer and government adviser, feel women need to be part of creating technology if their problems are to be addressed. Prof Hammond takes a broader view, believing that diversity in general is the key. “The diversity of the people I work with not only changes the way we approach problems but it changes the kind of problems we approach.”


Alec Ross

Alec Ross, former senior adviser for innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was US secretary of state, and author of The Industries of the Future, believes robotics, advanced life sciences, the codification of money, cyber security and big data will affect economic and social change.

“I think the commercialisation of genomics will have as much impact on our lives over the long-term as the rise of the internet,” he says.

“We are going from a world which today has 16bn internet-connected devices, to one that in 2020 is going to have 40bn,” he adds.

However, the US and Europe risk falling behind if the west continues to cling to its outdated educational institutions, Mr Ross warns.

“People say government is slow to change; nothing is slower to change than education and this is really what puts the working and middle classes in Europe and the US in a disadvantaged position.”

In a world of increased artificial intelligence and automation, we are going to see enormous changes in labour, with machines increasingly replacing humans, says Mr Ross. But some labour that will not be replaced will grow in importance.

Here, Mr Ross believes those with strengths traditionally seen as “female” may hold an advantage. “A workplace where a greater premium is placed on attributes like emotional intelligence ultimately benefits women in the executive ranks.”


Amali de Alwis

Amali de Alwis, chief executive of Code First: Girls, a social enterprise tackling the lack of women in technology and entrepreneurship through community courses, networking events and corporate activities, says: “There is no such thing as a non-tech industry these days.”

Ms de Alwis believes this is the year of virtual and augmented reality. “Pretty much every single company is launching some sort of virtual or augmented reality headset,” she notes, pointing to the Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Google’s VR headset for smartphones.

Houzz, a website and online community dedicated to architecture and design, wants to use virtual reality to allow people to experience what is about to be built. But the technology’s impact will reverberate far beyond entertainment and interior design, with “applications for surgery and the inspection of oil pipelines”, Ms de Alwis says.

In the US, immersive virtual reality has already been shown to reduce pain in burn victims. Could headsets in the labour ward be next?

Personal passions for Ms de Alwis include crypto currencies and blockchain (the same decentralised ledger book that underpins bitcoin). But it has potential for use in applications other than currencies, such as Leanne Kemp’s Everledger, which tracks diamonds, so making them far more difficult to steal.


Prof Saeema Ahmed-Kristensen

Prof Saeema Ahmed-Kristensen, deputy head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London, says 3D printing will enter the mainstream within the next five to 10 years. She also cites big data as an emerging trend. “People are no longer designing products but entire systems,” she says. But as technology such as 3D printers becomes cheaper and more sophisticated, it also provides people with the power to do harm.

“When we are educating designers the ethics are very important,” says Prof Ahmed-Kristensen. She points to the example of 3D printing being used to create weapons.

“There’s a need to understand how a product fits into an infrastructure, including ethics, social responsibility and cultural sensitivity.

From a design and engineering perspective, either we start with the need or the technology, but we need to understand the human aspect of it: how women and men use the technology.”

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