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Eye on the Future

by John Petersen

What Is Enlightenment?: What new developments and trends are you keeping your eye on these days?

John Petersen: There are revolutionary changes going on in a variety of technology areas—in biotech, information technology, nanotechnology, cognition technology. And in every case, the new technology's capabilities are moving quickly, giving us abilities that no one has ever had before.

For example, there's biometrics, which promises to be able to identify someone just by looking at their biology.

WIE: Do you mean things like physical fingerprinting?

Petersen: Fingerprinting is the simple version. But biometrics also has to do with things like facial recognition, retinal scanning, and newer technologies that use DNA or that can identify you at a distance simply by your gait, by the way you walk. These technologies in combination allow you, with cameras and other devices, to look out on a street, for example, and know exactly who you're looking at. People will no longer have any anonymity. But Americans particularly are very suspect of that. They have this strange notion of anonymity and what they call freedom. They think they should be able to operate and do things without anybody knowing what they're doing.

WIE: Do you mean strange as compared to other cultures?

Petersen: Well, if you go to Britain, for example, they track you; they know where every car is. There's no place in London that you can go that doesn't have television cameras—they scan every street. They built all that stuff because the IRA was putting bombs in wastebaskets and blowing them up. When I gave a speech on privacy and security in Europe, the press all came up to me and said, “What are you talking about? We all have ID cards, everybody knows where we are all the time. I mean, what's the problem?”

WIE: I remember reading about the Super Bowl a couple of years ago where they scanned the face of everyone who came into the stadium and compared it against a list of wanted individuals. Do you think this kind of thing will be happening more frequently in the future?

Petersen: Well, there is a new technology that is able to tell by your voice with one hundred percent certainty whether you're telling the truth. Nobody has ever been able to do that before. They're keeping it kind of quiet right now, but if it became widespread, it would really change things.

There's another technology that uses the fact that your brain always keeps a record and a pattern of everything that ever happened to you. So you can hold up an object and ask somebody, “Have you seen this?” and then you can tell whether they've actually seen it or not by their brain waves. So in the case of O.J. Simpson, for instance, you could have held up the glove and he wouldn't have had to tell you if he had seen it before. A monitor could have registered it from reading his brain waves.

There is also a new subdermal chip—a microchip that is placed just under the skin—and it's so small that you can hardly see the thing, but wherever you walked, you could be scanned. You could always know who it was that came in the door.

So these are very significant converging technologies that are all working on figuring out who you are, what you're doing, how you're doing it, whether you're telling the truth, and what your motivations are. And that's very different from the way it's been in the past.

WIE: You mentioned biotech. We all hear a lot about genetics and some of the miraculous things that we'll soon be able to do. But what will it really mean in the next five or ten years?

Petersen: Well, it would mean, for example, that there might no longer be any cerebral palsy. All kinds of diseases that are genetically driven could be dealt with. It also could be useful in growing food. One recent genetic variation, for instance, allows you to grow certain vegetables—I can't remember if it was cabbages, lettuces, or tomatoes—in a highly saline environment, like seawater. That would be extraordinarily useful in some third world countries where you're near the ocean and don't have fresh water.

WIE: Of course, there are all kinds of fears that we are going to be able to create a super-race, a special genetically altered class of people.

Petersen: Yes, of course, this technology can be misused. You could just make big athletic football players if you wanted to. But the technology itself is intrinsically neutral. It can be used for good and it can be used for bad, based on the values of the people who are using it. You can use a knife to cut up your dinner, or you can use a knife to kill somebody. It's the same principle.

There is, however, a new wrinkle. Because there are new technologies that are so powerful and that have such extraordinarily profound implications, they might get out of hand. Something might happen that we didn't have control over, a situation where we didn't understand what the implications were going to be, and it was too late to figure it out. And then we'd have a big problem.

John Petersen is the founder and president of The Arlington Institute, a Washington, DC–area research institute. He is the author of Out of the Blue: How to Anticipate Wild Cards and Big Future Surprises.


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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004