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Tufts Futurism Society debates moral, ethical issues of advanced technology

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 06:03

futurism

Nick Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Fleig-Goldstein and Schneider, pictured above with sophomore Kumar Ramanathan, founded the Tufts Futurism Society last spring.


What if you could live to be 200 years old? What if you could increase your IQ by 300 points? What if you could live with a new colony of humans in space? To the members of the Futurism Society at Tufts, these prospects aren’t just flights of fancy — they’re the starting points of lively weekly discussions.

The Futurism Society, now nearly a year old, was born out of a meeting of the Tufts Freethought Society last spring during which the topic of space colonization was broached, according to sophomore co−founders Brendan Fleig−Goldstein and Michael Schneider.

“The speaker for that day’s planned talk was sick, so I suggested [that the group talk about space colonization] off the cuff,” Schneider said.

“It was clear that a lot of people though of NASA as a gutted, has−been, ghost agency,” Fleig−Goldstein said. “I think private corporations are ultimately going to pull most of the weight when it comes to moving our species off the terrestrial floor, but NASA . . . is [still] doing very important work.”

This misinformation, according to Fleig−Goldstein, lit a fire under himself and Schneider.

“[We] decided we thought it as worthwhile to spread information and generally advocate for our country’s investment in space,” Fleig−Goldstein said.

“It turns out [that] a fair amount of us had a blast talking about it, so [Fleig−Goldstein] and I walked out talking about starting something more regular,” Schneider added.

Schneider defines futurism as a merger between “future studies,” or futurology, and the concepts of ethics and decision−making.

“Whereas futurology is just about predictions and extrapolations, futurism adds a normative blend — what sorts of things would we want to see in the future, what are the possible problems that will emerge between now and then, and what sort of problems might we imagine once there,” he said.

Fleig−Goldstein calls futurism, simply, “an activity that futurists do.”

“Futurists are interested in problems that don’t exist today, but will exist tomorrow,” he said. “We aren’t interested in predicting the future as much as we are interested in the emergent ethical issues that will come with technological advances.”

Some advances Fleig−Goldstein cited include the aforementioned prospects of extreme life extension or intelligence increase, either of which could sound to modern humans like a blessing or a curse. Futurists, however, take neither stance.

“We don’t take technological developments to be good or bad,” Fleig−Goldstein said. “[Instead] we want to understand the proper usage of technology [when] integrated into an advanced society.”

As far−off — in terms of both time and plausibility — as these ideas may sound, much of the Futurism Society’s discussion topics are rooted in fundamentally current ideas, Fleig−Goldstein said.

“[We] consider . . . important ways in which science and technology will change society,” he said. These ways include vertical farming, or cultivating crops on skyscrapers or other vertical surfaces, and the mechanization of various jobs previously held by humans.

As such, Schneider sees futurism as a concept with broad appeal.

“We are digesting really cool and bizarre science fiction topics in a way that critically judges [their] social, ethical and practical limitations. That’s naturally going to appeal to pretty much anyone raised on science fiction or speculative fiction or pop−science magazines,” Schneider said. “Whenever you might have rolled your eyes at the preposterous claims of some writer, [futurists put] words to those eye rolls and are building more reasonable paths toward those . . . ideas.”

“Besides, I think most people, if they have some free time, would enjoy listening to the kind of ethical and scientific conversations we have,” he added.

Fleig−Goldstein’s own interest in futurism was sparked by science fiction.

“When I was little, I was interested in the natural sciences, and eventually I was introduced to Star Wars. Science fiction is a gateway drug,” he said. “Many of the great science fiction writers know a lot about the actual science and technology behind the ideas they incorporated into their stories.”

It’s from authors Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein that Fleig−Goldstein learned about the feasibility behind social developments like space colonization, resulting in a keen interest in current events regarding the space industry, he said.

Tufts is a breeding ground for individuals interested in futurism and its implications on the ethical and scientific fronts, according to Schneider and Fleig−Goldstein.

“There are a lot of students [here] who are interested in ideas for the sake of the idea itself,” Schneider said. “We like circling around an image and exploring the social and ethical and scientific inconsistencies that the image might have hidden in it, [so] Tufts students . . . are a perfect avenue to get good discussion going.”

“Most people at Tufts want to make the world a better place in new and interesting ways,” Fleig−Goldstein added.

Fleig−Goldstein and Schneider also operate a website for the club, futurismsociety.org, as well as a Facebook page with 85 current members and a Twitter account with 129 followers at time of press. Each provides links, resources and original content related to futurism, much of it generated or curated by Schneider and Fleig−Goldstein.

The future of the Futurism Society is clear, at least to Schneider and Fleig−Goldstein. If the club grows beyond its current regular attendance of about 15 students, Schneider foresees the addition of an arm that engages in public outreach and education to encourage speculation about science and the future and to foster awareness of what Schneider calls “futurist optimism and scientific literacy.”

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