The Future of Humankind: Paths of Promise and Peril

May 02, 2016

The executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and three other big thinkers took the stage at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference to mull over “The Future of Humankind.” Not surprisingly, their combined vision promises much creative chaos in the future, with huge implications for everything from health care and education to home construction.

Sharing the stage were former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, chairman of Generation Investment Management; Jennifer Doudna, professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley; and Guruduth Banavar, vice president and chief science officer for cognitive computing at IBM.

Schmidt’s vision of the not-too-distant future included cellphones that monitor your health and call your doctor in case of emergency, a 3-D printing system that can design and build a home or commercial structure in a fraction of the time required by traditional techniques, and the driverless car, versions of which are currently being road-tested.

Schmidt emphasized, however, that his “core goal is to get people to be smarter with computers helping them,” rather than replacing people with machines.

That sentiment was shared by Banavar, who talked about the advances that can be achieved by marrying human skills (“self-directed goals, common sense and value judgments”) with the capabilities of machines (“large-scale math, spatial discovery, statistical reasoning”). 

He shared an example in which a company uses a so-called “cognitive assistant,” like IBM’s Watson, to assess an acquisition target, analyzing huge amounts of complex financial data in a matter of minutes. “If you step back, this becomes a vision for the future that I believe is absolutely transformative,” Banavar said, describing a world where “every professional in every industry has a cognitive assistant to help them do their job.”

Guruduth Banavar

Guruduth Banavar, Vice President and Chief Science Officer Cognitive Computing, IBM

Doudna was part of the team that discovered CRISPR/Cas9, a technology for editing genes that could be used in a variety of ways, including the repair or replacement of mutations that cause genetic diseases that are currently incurable.

Though the excitement surrounding what she called a “monumental discovery” is huge, the breakthrough has also opened the door to abuse, such as the creation of genetically engineered babies with perfect eyesight and high IQs.

“We have a huge responsibility to pay as much attention to the unintended consequences of this technology as well as the exciting impacts,” Doudna told the audience. She is involved in a global effort to establish an ethical framework for the use of CRISPER/Cas9 and other gene-altering technologies.

Jennifer Doudna Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology, Univer

Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Gore knows something about unintended consequences, as a renowned pioneer in countering climate change. Record temperatures, drought, destructive storms, melting glaciers have already become features of our environment. Every 24 hours, 110 million tons of heat-trapping gases are released into the world’s atmosphere, which Gore described as an “open sewer.”

He cited a Pentagon report that warned of climate-related food and water shortages that could spark economic devastation, political unrest and vast refugee migrations. In Syria, for example, severe droughts over the last decade killed 80 percent of the livestock and destroyed 60 percent of the farms, he said. 

“The gates of hell have opened in Syria. There are other causes, but the underlying cause is climate change.”

Al Gore

Al Gore, Chairman, Generation Investment Management; Former U.S. Vice President

Despite this bleak scenario, Gore ended his predictions on a positive note, citing last year’s global climate change agreement in Paris, the dramatic drop in the cost of crystalline solar cells (10 percent a year for the last 30 years) and the explosion in the installation of renewable energy (three-quarters of new electricity generation last year came from solar and wind). 

The Nobel laureate expressed confidence that the world has turned a corner in the climate debate, and the forces behind the “sustainability revolution” will prevail. “I know the will to act is itself a renewable resource,” he said.

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