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ASU Governance Conference

May 22


Existential risk, the annihilation of humans, is on the minds of many. Even though this theory is a logical analysis of risk, its conjecture fuels public emotion. It brings into play the questions of who will be able to afford new technologies to survive and who might be left behind. All of us—all of humanity—will face some of the projected risks of AI, cybersecurity, global warming, human rights and equality, among a bevy of other issues. To apprehend potential risks, we need to apply sensible safeguards on evidence, especially on scientific reporting.

It seems plausible that scientific research can be chided if it could disrupt our sacred beliefs. Centuries after Galileo’s tenure with public outrage due to his responsible reporting, the opposite occurred with the historic and diabolic 1692 Salem Massachusetts witch trials that caused mass hysteria when a group of young girls claimed to be possessed and accused local women of witchcraft. A wave of fear spread throughout the village and people were accused of fraternizing with the devil. It was not proved that those accused were in league with or cohorts of the devil.

On a less somber note, but a more recent event caused an unexplainable mass physiological outbreak, due to questionable scientific reporting of nausea and seizures of 12,000 Japanese children. The culprit was a cartoon episode of Pokémon. Some believed the reaction was caused by the bright flashing lights of the animation. However, the Southern Medical Journal published a study refuted this claim.

A future study was highly publicized on autism, claiming that Mumps, Measles, and Rubella (MMR) vaccinations could cause autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. When the study’s paper was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in1998, it received considerable media attention. After a firestorm of controversy and public alarm, The Lancet revoked this study.

The point being: disruptive ideas often result from technological innovations that afford new opportunities to uncover the unknown or disprove beliefs, which can result in harsh social or political reactions. One of the central issues we face today is that of extending the human lifespan, reversing aging, and mitigating genetic disorders.

Putting this in perspective helps us understand the telos of this era and why we need an educated society of engaged learning to better understand the industry of life extension the tools we use and the research performed, its democratization, the need for reliable science reporting and its subsequent impacts to humanity.