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A Generation of Oppenheimers

The 21st century will feature multiple decisions as impactful, or more, as the Manhattan Project. We aren't ready for them.

by Henry Elkus

A young Robert Oppenheimer

Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer meeting in 1947

Oppenheimer knew that there was further significance beyond the terrible, staggering impact that the nuclear weapon had unleashed. The technology could not be taken back. The Manhattan Project had brought into existence something irreversible, something that could not be undone to prevent future use. There once existed an age in which society knew no nuclear weapons, and that age was past. This is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

22-year old activist Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence through his organizing leadership during the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, exemplifies the increasing diversification of power away from centralized nodes.

18th Century British polymath Thomas Young

With decentralization of power comes greater decentralization of powerful actions and decision making. This is both good and bad. A makeshift hospital in an active warzone can 3D print life-saving devices from across the world over the internet. Yet increasingly, those seeking to inflict harm can utilize the same technology to print weapons. From the groups of programmers creating the 3D printing software to the internet platforms hosting it, to the end product, none of these processes are centralized or controlled by any one government, company, family, or institution. It will often be these decentralized networks, with nodes comprised not only of Heads of State but of hackers, activists, and entrepreneurs who make the critical decisions of the 21st century.

Genetic engineering and other forms of biotechnology could prove to be an essential theme of the next time “square” of the chessboard

Hawking’s story, in cases of narrow application, is not far off. Contemporary examples of artificial intelligence making life and death decisions without human interference include lethal autonomous weapons, a domain well summarized by author Paul Scharre in his 2018 book “Army of None.”

The Legendary 1956 Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence

Biophysicist He Jiankui, who in 2018 controversially used gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to augment the DNA of human embryos to “vaccinate” them from future HIV infection.

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Time Magazine’s June 2019 issue highlighting small island nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Cook Islands

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