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Scientists Look at Promise, Peril of Technology

Scientists meeting in Los Angeles say technology offers the hope of a better world, but presents hazards if mishandled. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the University of Southern California and the journal "Science" convened a panel of scientific innovators to look at the promise and the perils of technology.

There are dangers in a democracy when an ill-informed citizenry must make policy decisions relating to medicine, the environment, or other branches of science, says John Seely Brown, the former chief scientist for the Xerox Corporation.

"You've got to ask, do we now have the scientific literacy in the public to be able to have informed dialogues about what these issues are really going to mean to civilization, to mankind itself," he said. "If we don't have the right kind of scientific literacy, all scientific debate becomes ideological."

The panelists say promoting scientific literacy is a challenge but a necessary goal, as new technologies change our society. Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says cell phones have transformed the way people communicate, and the iPod music player will also bring changes. It can be used for entertainment or for serious purposes, such as downloading audio versions of books, or his association's publication Science.

"In a relatively short period of time, everybody, just like everybody now has a cell phone, will have an iPod," he noted. "But will they be using it just to listen to music or will they listen to the podcasts from Science magazine?"

Raymond Kurzweil is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. His work has led to computerized speech recognition systems and flatbed visual scanners. He says the products of innovation are often expensive at first, but quickly become cheaper and more widely available. He says the trend is seen not just with electronics, but with medical advances such as AIDS drugs. Once costing thousands of dollars per patient, he notes the price has come down in the poorest countries where the drugs are desperately needed.

"Now in sub-Saharan Africa, they're $100 per patient per year and actually work a lot better. It's still too expensive for the individuals, but at least now it's affordable by governments and foundations and so one can actually do something about it."

He says technology, however, is a balance between promise and peril.

"The same knowledge and tools that will enable scientists to make great strides in cancer and heart disease can also empower a bio-terrorist to create a bio-engineered biological virus that would be much deadlier than an atomic bomb," he added.

He says for people with the right training, that could be easier than building a nuclear weapon.

George Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, says there is much to worry about, including global warming, which is at least partly the result of human activity. He describes himself, however, as an optimist.

"Look at what's happening in the world," he said. "China and India, without any question, in this century are becoming dominant powers in the world, also in the world of technology and science. And South America will come along. And Africa will come along."

He says a more equitable distribution of information in the future will make innovation more international, and that wealth and power will depend on what people can do and not on their natural resources. He says then, more people can get involved in the search for solutions.