Political gridlock defines the progress of technology policy. With the nano-scale world of emerging machinery progressing at an increasingly exponential rate, legislators, lawyers and the like have worked to define ethical boundaries and policy regulations at what was normal, 20th century speed.
The result? Snail’s pace policy promulgation that produces almost instantly outdated regulations. The legislative process as we know it is unprepared to keep up with the avalanche of new technologies ready for the market.
On February 4, at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, advances in biomedical and material science engineering allowed for the development of lab-grown human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), lab-synthesized cells unique in that they can adapt to reproduce just about every type of known human cell, ready for 3D printing.
The next day, robotic innovators debuted ‘Rex,’ the six-foot, fix-inches tall bionic man complete with artificially engineered organs. Rex, short for Robotic Exoskeleton, is programmed with algorithms that enable him to process and produce spoken words. Rex walks, too.
On the other side of the globe, Israel’s EyeSight Technologies might have just made the touch-screen feature a thing of the past. Last Thursday, EyeSight Technologies described the product as the “world’s first commercial gesture technology to allow users to control digital devices with a fingertip”, and the company’s current ventures include working with Windows and Linux operating systems to market software development kits (SDKs).
Fear not, Android users – EyeSight has developed the “fingertip” SDKs for your smartphones and tablets, too.
Each of these releases occurred just within the past two weeks.
The pace at which new technologies are being manufactured is unstoppable; we’re witnessing Moore’s Law in action, seeing as how the complexity factor of technology, in general, at least doubles every two years.
No one knows for sure where we’re headed. What we do know is that there’s no escaping the daunting task of sorting out rules and regulations for an industry that has isomerized into the corporate manifestation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: as soon as you think you’ve pinned down a new technology for the hot seat, it escapes, transforming into something better, faster and more complex. You’re left at the scene of the crime with nothing but an antiquated analysis.
Currently, patent litigation still consists of loads of paperwork. And if a market-ready technology has a biomedical focus, the stack of necessary FDA paperwork is discouraging. Sure, filling out the pages involves plenty of copying and pasting – the FDA doesn’t give you free-form control to author a heap of sheets towering over even the bulkiest of college textbooks. The system we have in place today cannot ensure that the devices your physicians, scientists, and engineers use to improve your quality of life are the most effective and efficient ones available. Proven, cutting-edge technology still has to be processed through the government.
Market-ready technology is piling up like one of those lines to nowhere at the DMV.
Beyond the realm of ethical and economic concerns in policy, it is impossible even to predict how the back-to-back launching of new technology into society will modify life as we know it. These developments will offer us an improved quality of life, with synthesized cells like the hESCs enabling the regrowth of human limbs. Of course, there are dangers to every new technology. After all, who would want Rex-bots to take over the world?
The dichotomy of consequences each technology offers us, both good and bad, is exactly why we must prepare the realm of public policy for the dynamic environment of technological innovation, so we can extract the beneficial aspects and prohibit the detrimental.
As university students, the questions facing us are being redefined on a momentary basis. How bionic should our society become? What limitations must be put on these advancements? The supersonic speed of the applied and integrated science we are witness to offers us more than convenience, increased productivity, and inspiration. It’s giving us the chance to write the future like nothing else ever has.