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Save us from idiot savants: Did COVID come from a Wuhan lab? Either way, technology’s mystique must be challenged

Perhaps the greatest one-page science fiction ever written is ‘Answer’, by Fredric Brown. It’s set in the future where humanity has tamed nature, conquered the galaxies, and is hooking up a giant supercomputer that will contain all the knowledge in databases across the galaxies, linked through a kind of interplanetary internet.

When it’s finally plugged in, one of the assembled humans puts to it a question puzzling humanity through the ages:

“Is there a God?” The supercomputer doesn’t hesitate a moment to answer: “Yes, now there is.”

The full import of this answer strikes another of the assembled humans. He blanches in fear and rushes to unplug the supercomputer. But a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky strikes him down, and fuses the switch shut, assuring the supercomputer of endless power for its operations.

Many visionary writers have intuited the future. If the coronavirus was indeed created in a Wuhan research lab – and an article by science journalist Nicholas Wade, appearing in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, puts together very compelling evidence why we should think so – the obvious literary parallel that occurs is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with Dr Frankenstein’s foul creation in this case being not so much a monster but a tiny virus. But Fredric Brown’s little story would be even closer to the mark. After all, even Frankenstein’s monster has some feelings, and is not nearly so destructive – while the coronavirus, like the supercomputer, becomes a pure artefact of technology.

Irrespective of whether COVID-19 actually came out of a Wuhan lab, what’s indisputable is that virologists have for some time engaged in dangerous ‘gain of function’ experiments – whereby viruses are engineered to become more efficient in spreading disease.

Shi Zhengli, the infamous “Bat Lady” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, teamed up with Ralph S. Baric of the University of North Carolina to enhance the ability of bat viruses to attack humans. Other American virologists have engaged in such work too; curiously, Shi and Baric’s work was part funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

If you’re wondering what the NIH is doing by funding experiments like these, which translate into the opposite of its mission as they could promote disease on a vast scale, the only plausible answer is a fetish for technology, or a worship of technology for technology’s sake.

Virologists’ defence is that the scientific knowledge gained through them will somehow enable us to get ahead of a pandemic. As Wade correctly argues, exactly how far have they enabled us to stay ahead of the COVID pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives already?

Those performing ‘gain of function’ experiments, in fact, come close to the ‘idiot savant’ prototype, if not the ‘mad scientist’ caricatures that popular fiction abounds in.

And technology comes close to religion in the modern world, with few of its converts – often more powerful and persuasive than the high priests of orthodox religions – willing to answer or raise questions about how far it serves human purposes.

Indeed futurists like Yuval Noah Harari project a dark future for humanity, with technology in control:

“Soon authority might shift again – from humans to algorithms. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was justified by the liberal story, so the coming technological revolution might establish the authority of Big Data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual freedom” (21 Lessons for the 21st Century).

Signs of technology running amok aren’t restricted to engineered viruses, or unregulated big data. They’re all around us. Take climate change. Its consequences could be far bigger, and even more unstoppable – once the genie is out of the bottle – than the coronavirus. Take the development of killer robots. Technically known as LAWS (lethal autonomous weapons systems), they could soon become laws unto themselves if they materialise on the battlefield. Stephen Hawking, and 4502 AI/ robotics researchers, signed an open letter calling for a ban on these slaughterbots – to no avail.

Where scientists don’t want to go, the politicians want to go (scientists may be more aware of the Janus-faced nature of their vocation).

Thus, Terminator prototypes could soon move from the movie theatres to an actual war theatre near you, promising unlimited mayhem.

Humanity’s ambiguous situation, however, is that it takes more technology to heal the problems created by technology.

For example, if COVID-19 came out of a virology lab, the unprecedented pace of development of vaccines offers an antidote to it. No romantic, Luddite escape from technology is really possible. If we’re trapped in a technological maze, only more science and tech can show us the way out.

But regulating science and tech – especially in emergent fields such as genetics and AI – is now even more urgent than regulating big data.

Ethics, and the search for human purpose, must loom large in every field of scientific activity, and be integrated into every scientific curriculum. Such fields of activity as engineering pathogens or killer robots must be outlawed outright. China and US, as the two nations with the strongest tech fetishes (in that order), must lead the way.

COVID has led to more deaths and suffering than good-sized religious wars already – and we don’t know what horrors its future trajectory holds. The only way suffering on COVID’s massive scale can be redeemed is if, thanks to it, humanity were to come to an understanding of the growing dangers of technological fetishism, and develop the politics and institutions necessary to move beyond it and towards a more humble, and humane, science.

Source: Swagato Ganguly – The Times of India