Angewandte Chemie International Edition

Cover image for Vol. 56 Issue 28

Editor: Peter Gölitz, Deputy Editors: Neville Compton, Haymo Ross

Online ISSN: 1521-3773

Associated Title(s): Angewandte Chemie, Chemistry - A European Journal, Chemistry – An Asian Journal, ChemistryOpen, ChemPhotoChem, ChemPlusChem, Zeitschrift für Chemie

Press Release

Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43 (28), 3632—3641

No. 28b/2004

Will Computers Think, Machines Invent, and Humans Live Forever?

Harvard Chemist G. Whitesides on the Future

"Speculating about the future of science seems to be in scientists’ blood," says Harvard Professor and 2003 Kyoto-Prize winner George M. Whitesides. "We all do it. And we all firmly believe that serious predictions are nearly always wrong." Are reflections on the future relevant, or do they only serve as diversions? In the past, scientific discoveries caused fundamental convictions of humanity to be overthrown again and again—with far-reaching results for society. In retrospect, it is naturally easy to detect false or disproved fundamental assumptions. Is it also possible to predict which of the ideas we take for granted today will likewise be disproved later? In an essay in Angewandte Chemie, Whitesides discusses a series of assumptions accepted by society, and the potential of the natural sciences—especially chemistry—to refute them.

"A fundamental assumption silently separates the imaginable from the unimaginable," explains Whitesides. "If a basic assumption is vulnerable, it will very probably eventually be overturned by the attacks of the natural sciences—for better or for worse." For example, we are convinced that we are mortal. Research has already attained many victories in the fight against fatal diseases, and further advances are expected. Modern treatments may even eventually conquer cancer and heart disease, turn back biological clocks, and repair genetic defects. All this does not at all affect the dogma of mortality, but a drastic lengthening of the average life expectancy would inevitably turn our societal structures completely upside down. Other questions that Whitesides goes into include: Will computers think and develop a conscience? Will the lines between life-form and machine, between alive and dead, eventually begin to blur? Should a human always be kept alive at any cost?

Science that inescapably changes the world inevitably brings up ethical questions. Technologies that noticeably lengthen life or develop new forms of life or "sympathetic" systems will bring both advantages and disadvantages. "Those of us that work on these problems," says Whitesides, "should feel obliged to fully and unmistakably explain what we do, why we do it, and—to the small extent that we can—with what consequences."