Developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, neurotechnology and information technology (to name but a few ‘-ologies’) are difficult enough in themselves in terms of understanding and managing their potential future applications. But when they combine and converge in novel ways, they present even greater challenges.
Synthetic biology that might generate novel, functional organisms; the application of powerful new informatics systems to expanding databases of whole genome sequences; scanning and imaging technologies; robotics and the development of computer-aided biological systems where biology and technology begin to merge.
These are all with us and developing rapidly. And the point about these developments is not only that they are complex, but that they breach our existing categories – categories of what sits within the life sciences as opposed to the physical sciences, and categories of what is or is not health-related. They also have, from the outset, a global dimension as their contributors and applications are not limited in any way by local, national or regional boundaries.
This complex vision of the progression of science in the coming years can be challenging and daunting. But we must also recognize how essential it will be in helping to address some of the most problematic issues of our time – persistent health inequalities; the adverse effects of climate change; and the increasing prevalence of disorders such as dementia, obesity and poor mental health.
This is an exciting period, then, and one that will bring some immense opportunities as well as challenges. It has many implications for all of us, but there are four things in particular that we need carefully to consider, whether as concerned individuals, as UNESCO or other relevant bodies, or a society as a whole.
These are, firstly, that we must work across disciplines and across sectors to gain insight into what is coming; to evaluate what is involved and what is at stake; and to consider what might be needed to support, protect or respond to these developments. This means working not only across technical disciplines, but also ensuring good communication and collaboration between the life sciences, social sciences and humanities, and fully involving civil society.
Secondly, we must be careful not to box in ‘bio’, as the conjunctions between ‘bio’ and ‘non-bio’ are going to be critical. Equally, we should not limit ourselves to thinking only about the medical environment – what is ‘medical’ has changed, and now extends to predictive and preventive interventions. Moreover, new applications are also relevant in terms of what might be called ‘health optimization’ or enhancement; and many applications will extend to fields that are not at all health-related, such as in industrial, leisure, environmental and agricultural sectors.
Thirdly, we must continue to promote wide public awareness and discussion. The significance of new technologies is often dependent on the social context in which they emerge. It is essential that a public discourse should be encouraged so that we can understand that context and engage the whole of society in considering their concerns, priorities and responses in respect of developments in biorelated technologies.
And finally, we must continue to work globally – in supporting and helping develop the capacity of all nations to reflect on bioethical issues; in enabling all parts of the world to gain benefits from new scientific and technological developments; and working together to gain common insights and approaches where appropriate.