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Promoting BioFuturist Policy Brainstorming Among the Young
J. Hughes   Nov 30, 2007   Ethical Technology  

When I was twelve my Dad gave me a subscription to The Futurist.  Mainstream futurology kind of paled for me next to the science fiction I was reading, but at least I knew early on that there were people trying to anticipate and prepare for a radically different future. Imagine my surprise thirty five years later, after a decade of bio-futurist work, to discover that in 1974, one year after I started reading The Futurist, a program for junior futurists was started which today includes more than 250,000 kids in grades 4-12 worldwide.

The organization that coordinates these activities is the Future Problem Solving Program International. I discovered the Future Problem Solvers (FPS) here in Connecticut when I was invited to speak to FPS groups in two middle schools. Now I am helping with a state seminar for FPS teachers and students on the topic of neurotechnology.

Neurotechnology is one of the three topics that FPS groups are working on all across the planet this year, along with “Body Enhancement” and “Simulation Technology.”

Body Enhancement:  Cosmetic surgery, brain implants, computerized prosthetics, tattooing, and body piercing are all forms of body enhancement.  In some cultures, tattooing and excessive body piercing are seen as anti-establishment.  While in others, indigenous peoples are reverting to these ancient rituals as a statement of their cultural belonging and pride.  Plastic surgery has evolved from assisting badly burned or maimed soldiers to those today suffering from body dismorphic disorder due to imagined needs to change his/her appearance.  New technology now enables paraplegics to control prosthetic devices using only their thoughts and forecasters foresee nanorobotics boosting other mental abilities.  Where will the concept of body enhancement end?  How far will people go not only to correct deformities or disabilities but to enhance their otherwise normal, healthy bodies to superhuman or “superperfect” proportions?

Simulation Technology:  As computer technology improves, photos can be “corrected” to show perfection. Video of any individual can be altered to show whatever the programmer chooses. This could be a wonderful opportunity for actors to vacation while movies that include them are made. It might also allow someone who is overweight to see what they might look like as a thin person or for parents to see what their new baby will look like as a child or an adult. Images can be manipulated to show almost anything. What implications could this have in court evidence? Could it impact employment?  What other amazing things could be accomplished with this technology?

Neurotechnology:  Neurotechnology is technology that makes it possible to manipulate the brain. Already one young patient has had a chip embedded in his brain, which allows him to control a computer using his thoughts.  Instruments and techniques used in developing neurotechnology include brain imaging systems (MRI, PET, EEG), biochips (DNA microarrays, protein chips, RNA chips), genetic engineering techniques, cellular implantation, and electronic stimulation. Neurotechnology offers hope to sufferers of brain disorders and spinal cord injuries to lead a normal life again. It also has the potential to enhance brain functions in normal people. What are the ethical implications of neurotechnology? Should it only be used for recovery from illness and injury or is the use of it for augmentation also a possibility?

In each area the students are given a short story set in the future illustrating how the technologies might play out, and they are challenged to think and write about the social problems and possible solutions in that society.  In the Spring the FPS groups begin competing as individuals and as teams by offering a variety of different kinds of solutions to a common “Future Scene,” this year focusing on neurotechnology. These competitions filter all the way up to an annual international conference, the next one of which will be held at Michigan State University May 28-June 1, 2008.

All the different FPS competitions (except scenario-writing) involve the same steps:

1. Brainstorming Possible Challenges: Find possible problems within the given Future Scene.
2. Choose Underlying Problem: Determine the most important or consequential problem.
3. Brainstorming Solutions: Write solutions to solve the Underlying Problem.
4. Create Criteria: Write 5 criteria by which to judge the solutions.
5. Grid: Judge the solutions with the criteria, and determine which solution is the best overall.
6. Develop Action Plan: The highest-scoring (best) solution, as determined by the grid, is elaborated into a detailed plan for the implementation of that solution.

For 2008-2009 the topics the FPS will be addressing are:

* Olympic Games (Practice Problem 1)
* Cyberconflict (Practice Problem 2)
* Space Junk (The Qualifying Problem for Competitions)

So if you have kids I urge you to see if there is an FPS program in your school, get your kids involved, and offer your futurist policy expertise to the coaches. If there isn’t an FPS program, help get one established.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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