Thursday, 20 February 2014

Cross-fertilization of ideas

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Have you noticed what happens when a physicist sits at the same table with a psychologist; a biologist with an artist; a technocrat with an environmental activist; a bureaucrat with a bioethicist; a nanotechnologist with a social scientist; a West-trained theorist with an indigenous scholar; or a policy practitioner with an academic? The language of communication changes as each person moves away from the loaded jargon of one field to reach out to the other. 

Communication lies at the heart of public understanding of science. The two of us saw communication blossoming when we brought together natural and physical scientists, social scientists, indigenous scholars, artists, poets, activists, and policy practitioners at an international symposium on transforming public engagement on controversial science and technology at the University of Waikato this week.

All the participants had something to say on new and emerging technologies ranging from nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering to gene mapping and assisted reproductive technologies. But, confronted as they were with a wide variety of other points of view, they had an opportunity to reflect on their own positions and engage in unique forms of deliberation. They each made an attempt to listen to and understand the other and re-formulate their own articulations.

One of the keynote speakers at the symposium, Professor Shaun Hendy, an award-winning scientist and science communicator, emphasised that the “value of scientific knowledge depends on the context – the better scientists are at providing the context, the better public understanding of science will be.” A more detailed account of Professor Hendy’s talk can be found in Peter Griffin’s Science Media Centre blog while a summary of the policy engagement session on science communication is available in Dr Alison Campbell’s BioBlog

Indeed, the highlight of the symposium were the six policy engagement sessions which followed panel presentations on the themes of ‘citizenship and deliberative democracy’; ‘science communication’; ‘new technologies and ethics’; ‘indigenous science’; ‘science-society interface’; and ‘designing public engagement’. It is at these engagement sessions that people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds with a shared interest in potentially controversial new technologies deliberated and worked on establishing a common ground among what initially seemed like polarised views.

The tone of the symposium was set by Professor John Dryzek of the Australian National University who made the point that “deliberative democracy rests on the idea that democratic legitimacy depends on the right, opportunity, and capacity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in consequential deliberation about its content”. 

In another keynote address, indigenous scholar Associate Professor Kim TallBear of the University of Texas at Austin presented a powerful critique of the “unethical technoscientific research done on indigenous people by scientists whose assumptions and goals are shaped by a colonial mindset”. This keynote was followed by a stimulating session on “critical indigenous views on biocolonialism and the impact of new technologies” led by Associate Professor Leonie Pihama of the Te Kotahi Research Institute. The symposium had a strong Maori participation. In thought-provoking engagement sessions led by Sandy Morrison and Maui Hudson of the University of Waikato, participants suggested that the very process of decision making on scientific funding should be flipped so as to be driven by community needs and social justice commitments rather than narrowly defined economic gain. The symposium also featured a kapa haka performance by students of the Tai Wananga, a school dedicated to the teaching of science and innovation with a strong Maori perspective. The performance was coached and choreographed by their teacher, Talei Morrison, who herself recently completed Masters research on ‘Maori perspectives on new and emerging technologies’. 

The final keynote was by Professor Lyn Kathlene of the Spark Policy Institute, USA, who talked about the need for “contextual creativity” to shape public engagement. “Flexibility, out-of-the-box thinking, and a willingness to venture into unknown territory are necessary ingredients to designing a process that works for both policy planners and citizens”, she said. 

Indeed, nurturing contextual creativity was the goal of the symposium. If the cross-disciplinary conversations are an indication, participants would have made several steps towards this goal.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A rose by any other name?

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

It’s Valentine’s Day and quite a bit of the discussion around the most romantic day of the Western calendar in recent times has been on the future of Love in a technological age.  Can human love survive when more and more people seem to be so infatuated with their technological gadgets that they have little time to think about the finer points of long-term relationships?

The Sunday magazine of New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times, in its most recent issue, features the views of a neuroethicist, a futurist, and a philosopher on what it might be to be ‘in love’ in the years ahead. In piecing together their views in an article called “The Love Equation”, Rose Hoare talks about a wide range of possibilities ranging from chemical sprays to keep wavering couples monogamous to “nano-neural interfacing” that allows people “to share thoughts and memories”.

While traditional characteristics of what it is to be human are rapidly disappearing amidst the onslaught of technology, new characteristics are emerging that are blurring the lines between human and artificial intelligence. Regardless of where we are headed, love will still have a place in some form or the other. Hoare cites the French philosopher Alan Badiou as describing love as something that allows an individual to see beyond oneself. And self-fulfilment comes only when one can see oneself reflected in another being. A ‘selfie’ on a flash new smartphone can never be a substitute.

Yet, the question raised by the new Hollywood science fiction movie Her is whether self-fulfilment can be achieved through a relationship with another being that is not necessarily biologically human but a computer operating system much like the Siri of iphones. The male character of the movie is emotionally and psychologically drawn to the voice of ‘Her’ – she not only keeps pace with the man’s emotions but in many ways gallops ahead of him. Can that be love?

At the dawn of the 21st century, another science fiction movie, AI, had a memorable scene where a woman asks a professor: “It occurs to me with all this animus existing against Mechas [robots] today it isn't just a question of creating a robot that can love. Isn't the real conundrum, can you get a human to love them back?” Her suggests that humans can indeed “love” software-generated beings back but can the human-machine love continue to be based on 20th century notions of love based on integrity, respect, even monogamy? 

Science fiction of our times can sometimes be a crystal ball one can gaze into and prepare for the future. With limited avenues for the public to engage with decision-making on new technologies, science fiction is, for better or for worse, a resource to stimulate thinking about science and the future of society.