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Eye on the Future

An interview with John Petersen

WIE: John, your think tank, The Arlington Institute, was established to monitor the emerging trends in human culture that will most profoundly affect the future of our civilization. What recent developments have you been keeping your eye on?

JOHN PETERSEN: In the last few months, there have been several emerging changes that will affect the most fundamental aspects of human life and human interaction. One of them is in biotechnology, one in technology, one in energy, and one in geopolitics. And the fact that all of these events have occurred in such a short period of time is significant.

First, let's take biotech. In biotech, there are a number of things occurring, with the most significant one being cloning—the ability to replicate human beings. For the first time in all of history we have the ability to engineer and replicate humans, not just plant life or animal life, but human life. And it is hard for us to even begin to understand the implications of that from a sociological point of view.

Significant events are also happening in the arena of technology. Recently, there has been a breakthrough in figuring out how to teach a monkey to control a computer using only its thoughts. The monkey thinks “up” and the cursor goes up, and it thinks “right” and the cursor goes to the right. This whole notion that you could interface with computer technology using nothing but thought has profound implications downstream. For example, what if you marry that new capacity with the ability to automatically translate languages, which we're going to have in about four or five years? Suddenly, we have a combination of technologies that allows a person to control computers with their thoughts, and they can do that across the boundaries of any language.

Then in the arena of energy, there are recent discoveries of whole new ways to potentially generate electricity—things that happen once in a lifetime or once in a century. For example, there is the recent discovery of a way to generate and harness electricity just by directing water at a metal plate. This could be the beginning of the ability to power small devices such as Palm Pilots or calculators with water batteries, or maybe someday to contribute electricity to a national power grid from a clean, renewable source. And if you couple that with the recent announcement that a research group has figured out how to decrease the cost of photovoltaic cells for solar power by a factor of twenty, then we suddenly have capabilities for generating electricity anywhere around the world in ways that are cheaper than any of the capital-intensive, centralized ways that we produce electricity right now.

WIE: What type of time frame are we talking about for this kind of change in energy production?

JP: I think two or three years.

WIE: You also mentioned geopolitics?

JP: Yes. On the geopolitical front, there is the situation in Iraq, and the Middle East in general. Right now, Saudi Arabia is coming apart. It's coming apart from the inside—so much so that the Saudi leadership was recently trying to pick up the passports of all of the foreign workers, those people who actually run the industry in the country. In the worst case, you have the possible collapse of the government of Saudi Arabia, which could turn into a huge disruption of the energy markets and cause a global depression. It's a big, big deal.

So we have these huge, significant events that are all occurring in different dimensions and are all converging at the same time. And we don't understand what it all means ethically. We are essentially kind of hanging ourselves out over a cliff, using the ethics and the values of the past to try to make sense out of these events and these new technological capabilities of the future that are so different than anything we have seen before. And the best that human social systems do is try to juggle all of this. But they don't anticipate it; they don't put fundamental stopgaps in place to help deal with it. Indeed, the real possibility created by the problems in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, for example, is a long-term low-grade global war between Islam and the West—if we don't handle it right. Now that's a serious issue. And to effectively anticipate that and deal with it, you would have to not only deal with the symptomatic issues and problems that show up every day, such as terrorism and so on, but you also have to deal with the underlying issues, the fundamentals. And with all due respect, I don't know of anybody in our government who knows how to deal with the fundamentals. But that is what is actually required here—a kind of enlightened perspective that responds to the underlying issues in a comprehensive systems way with a long view to the future—a perspective that is proactive and not just reactive in the traditional way we do things.

WIE: Do you see this more enlightened perspective, this kind of systemic thinking, in any of the U.S. presidential candidates? Do you see potential there?

JP: Yes, I do. You don't see it right now, because they're trying to win the primary. But I think we will start to see it in Howard Dean and one or two of the other candidates as we work our way into the spring and get nearer to the general election.


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