Rod Oram: Food's new horizon

Scientists are devising new ways to create food.
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Scientists are devising new ways to create food.

Kiwis, along with everyone else on the planet, have to make big decisions about which technologies to embrace, and which to reject. The choices are only getting harder, and more frequent as science accelerates at an exponential rate.

The day is rapidly approaching, for example, when people will either choose to keep consuming milk, meat and eggs from farmed animals, or switch to such foods grown from cells in factories.

While cellular agriculture will be abhorrent to some, others will welcome it for its vastly reduced environmental impact, on animal rights grounds, or for economic reasons. 

Rod Oram says no country is coping well with the immense challenges of exponential technology change.
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Rod Oram says no country is coping well with the immense challenges of exponential technology change.

Commercial products from cellular agriculture are imminent, starting with meat. New Harvest, a New York City venture capital firm and a leader in the field, argues for the benefits here nz2050.com/NewHarvest. One of its startups is Perfect Day, a synthetic milk company, nz2050.com/PerfectDayMilk.

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Such extraordinary change is possible thanks to the extremely rapid convergence of multiple branches of science. The defining moment will come when artificial intelligence out-powers human intelligence, argue scientists such as Ray Kurzweil, a distinguished American inventor and futurist.

In 2005, Kurzweil published his best-selling book "The Singularity is Near" to analyse this new epoch in human history. An intense debate has raged ever since, with technology pioneers such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk arguing, for example, of the grave danger artificial intelligence poses to humans.

Another seminal book on the subject is "Superintelligence", published two years ago by Nick Bostrom of Cambridge University. A definitive guide to these complex issues is this essay in the New Yorker last November, nz2050.com/BostromSuperintelligence.

Over the past decade, Kurzweil and colleagues have developed ways to engage individuals and businesses on these immense yet fundamentally challenging opportunities. They began with "Singularity University", a 10-week summer school in Silicon Valley, and have broadened out with a range of programmes and initiatives.

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Next month, the SingularityU NZ summit will give Kiwis the opportunity to tap into the movement's researchers and resources. The three-day event is the initiative of Kaila Colbin, a tech sector specialist, and her Christchurch colleagues. Details are at www.singularityunz.com

In very simplistic terms, New Zealand's choices could be between "natural reality" and "synthetic reality". 

With the first, for example, we could become predator-free, restore our ecosystem, produce traditional food, forestry and manufactured products and offer conventional tourism.

In a sense we would become an ark, a living repository of relatively natural, 20th century farming, biology and other technologies. We might make a living this way from people who valued such things. But it would be hard to hide from the tsunami of technology change sweeping the planet. Anyway, few Kiwis would want to forego the benefits of change.

With the second, we would be part of a very different 21st century world. Radical new technologies would meet our needs with synthesised food and materials, while tourism becomes a hyper-real, virtual experience for people who never visit New Zealand.

In a sense, we would become simply a node in vast global networks, with relatively little to differentiate us from other nations. To thrive, we'd need to learn how to adapt these new technologies to our needs, while also excelling in some so we could earn a good living in the global economy.

Most likely, we'll fudge some blend of the two. But that won't be easy, given some sharp conflicts between the two scenarios.

No country is coping well with the immense challenges of exponential technology change, though some such as the US and Singapore, and the EU as a bloc, have long used the discipline of technology foresight to extend their horizons.

Overall, countries make insufficient use of science to further their progress, Sir Peter Gluckman, Prime Minister John Key's Chief Science Advisor, said in the UK this week, reported at nz2050.com/Gluckman

We Kiwis are very shortsighted. Businesses think only a few years ahead; Callaghan Innovation and Crown Research Institutes are the Government's way to commercialise near-term technology; universities are driven by government funding to crank out qualifications at the expense of long-term research; and the 11 National Science Challenges are very amorphous and bureaucratic.

Those ways will fail us. To lock on to the future, we must embrace The Singularity.

 

 - Sunday Star Times

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