Emerging technology comes with both upsides and downsides that we need to understand. Podcast Brave New Planet is a great place to start
6 January 2021
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“IN THE face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” says Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, when he realises he is stranded on Mars and no one is rushing to his rescue.
Eric Lander, a key scientist on the Human Genome Project and director of the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research centre in Massachusetts, quotes the lines in the prologue to his podcast, Brave New Planet, that explores how technology may shape the future.
We may not be alone on our planet, but we do face an existential threat from climate change. The question is, how much should we rely on technology to get us out of trouble? Should we, for example, attempt to pump the stratosphere with chemicals to reflect some solar radiation back into space? Lander, who acknowledges that society’s relationship with science has frayed in recent times, says such important decisions cannot be left to scientists and politicians alone.
As host, Lander encourages listeners to grapple with these complex topics and to mull over the technologies that could dramatically improve our future or leave us worse off unless we put the right checks and balances in place.
In seven engaging episodes, he spotlights videos created by artificial intelligence called deepfakes, geoengineering, lethal autonomous weapons, bias in predictive algorithms and “gene drives” that might allow us to restore ecosystems or reduce malaria deaths.
The first and last episodes give mathematician and geneticist Lander the opportunity to discuss the importance of decisions we make now and what it will take to build common ground globally.
Throughout, he interviews a lively bunch of experts – academics, law professionals, policy-makers, activists and the like – to illuminate the workings, and the imaginable impacts, of each technology.
The second episode, “Deepfakes and the Future of Truth”, starts with a moving elegy to the crew of the 1969 moon landing in Richard Nixon’s voice. Thankfully, the US president never needed to give this speech: “In Event of Moon Disaster” was filed away in the archives. Last year, a team at MIT showed deepfake’s potential by taking this text and using AI to create a hyperrealistic video of Nixon saying the words.
When seeing is no longer believing, can truth prevail, the show asks. Synthetic media, which can be easily shared on social media, threatens to swing elections and cause international conflicts – not to mention affect the lives of ordinary people.
Lander speaks to a woman in Australia who, as a teenager, discovered doctored images of herself on pornographic sites. She now campaigns to reform laws around image-based abuse, deepfakes and cyberbullying.
Given Lander knows many of the scientists he interviews, they slip naturally into jargon-free conversation. Overall, the experts appear to take their work, and not themselves, seriously. The bonhomie makes the podcast easy to listen to.
Lander avoids the temptation of advocating a single solution to any of the big questions the show poses. With the arrival of a new US president this month, the well-timed podcast gives us, as stewards of the planet, a heads-up on some pressing tasks ahead.
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