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
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
WIE: Do you mean strange as compared to other
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
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
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.