Thinking About Future Generations

By Paul Syers

Nature misses the mark when examining the question of what problems future generations will face.  The most recent issue of Nature, released this week, takes a break from its usual way of thinking and tackles the bold concept of looking far into the future.  I was excited to dive into one particular article that started off asking how well we can predict the effect that our decisions today will affect future generations.  Imagine my disappointment when the article turned out to be nothing more than a vehicle for discussion nuclear waste disposal.  While that particular issue is important and will be for generations to come, I find it an incredibly limited focus for discussing the impact of our actions on future generations. 

In some ways, saying we need to improve how we store nuclear waste makes the same assumptions that the beginning premise of the article warns against.  With the types of capabilities we will soon acquire in the areas of genetic manipulation, neurotechnology, and machine learning, our civilization and even species could look very different in as little as the next three generations.  Nuclear waste is just one small piece in a very large, complicated puzzle, and it’s likely we don’t even have all the pieces yet. If you’re going to ask that question, why not tackle it head on and acknowledge this? 

I do agree that it would be more useful when thinking about the future to separate the discussion into close future generations and remote future generations.  With close future generations, we have a reasonable idea of possible directions things can go.  When considering remote future generations, it is incredibly naïve to think of them as living like us, operating with remotely the same technology as us, or even existing as a single species, like we currently do.  The likelihood that remote future generations solve the problem of nuclear waste contamination could be just as high as the likelihood that those theoretical generations are even civilized, or limited to this planet.  The decisions we make about CRISPR technology, about the protocols we build into learning machines, and about the lengths we will go to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands will determine what things will be like for future generations far more.  I’d like to hear the thoughts the world’s greatest minds have on that. We bury our waste in the ground, we shouldn’t bury our heads there too. 

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