MedCity News eNewsletter

Healthcare’s future: Mad Max or Star Trek

Exponential advances in health and other technologies have both deep risk and reward and the choices we make will create the future.



The original technology that could be harnessed for good or evil. Using that as an analogy, Vivek Wadhwa, a technologist, author and Distinguished Fellow in the College of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, painted a picture of mankind’s future — especially here in the U.S. — as both glorious and terrifying. Wadhwa was a speaker at the Wearable Tech + Digital Health + Neurotech Silicon Valley conference at Stanford University on Tuesday.

Imagine this future, where there is an abundance of food. We can basically print our household goods and everything we need. We can order a driverless car at any time and get anywhere we need to be for practically free.

We live in perfect health. Imagine that world. And we enjoy, unlimited clean almost free energy, education and comfortable housing.

And then think of this future where we have massive employment. We are dependent on robots for practically everything. No driving on the roads, gone are the thrills. Gone are the satisfaction and social validation of working for a living. We are being watched and everything is being recorded.

Guess what folks? It’s exactly the same future.

This future is the result of the exponential growth of advanced technologies like digital medicine, artificial intelligence, gene editing, nanotechnology, robotics  — the list goes on — and their convergence, he noted. But these powerful technologies can have real harmful consequences just as fire can both sustain and destroy life. In other words, certain choices need to be made by human beings regarding how these technologies can be developed and applied.

“When I started focusing on the choices that we must make, I had this concept of Star Trek versus Mad max,” he said. “”If we get it right, we can build Star Trek about 300 years ahead of schedule.” he declared.

The contrast is clear.

Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic view of the future where limited resources have reduced humanity to its basest instincts of revenge, fear, greed and possession. Star Trek epitomizes the polar opposite future where battles over basic needs are long over and humans strive to continuously improve themselves through deep space exploration and ever-expanding knowledge.

But what are the choices and why do we need to make them.

Consider the gene-editing technology that CRISPR represents. It creates the tantalizing possibility that disease-bearing genomes can simply be edited out by taking a pill. But then there is the darker aspect too. How about adding an inch or two to a child’s height? What about choosing blue eyes or dark ones or a lighter shade of skin tone.

“I don’t think it’s going to take more than a decade before we now have discussions about how much we should be enhancing our children,” Wadhwa predicted.

The same moral choices will confront us through all the new technologies that are already here today and being rapidly developed and refined – the U.S. military is already developing killing machines, and drones have the ability to recognize a face amidst a crowd and kill that person, he said.

But Wadhwa suggested that responsible application of technology can be made if as a species we decide to weigh them against three questions:

  • Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally?

  • Do the risks outweigh the rewards? This is like fire, but is it worth it?

  • Does it lead to more autonomy or dependence? Is it like a drug that feels good while you take it but now you become dependent?

To know where Wadhwa stands on these new technologies and the above-mentioned choices, he pointed to his and Alex Salkever’s upcoming book: The Driver in the Driverless Car: How our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

But he ended his presentation on a more hopeful note.

“At the end of the day, I do believe we are going to create Star Trek [and not Mad Max] because I believe in humanity. We have survived so far. We’ll survive Donald Trump. It will be a very rough ride, but we will survive it. But we can only get to Star Trek if all of you start learning about these advances and participating in the discussion.”

Photo: Mad Max Fury Road Facebook, Wallpaper Safari (edited from downloaded images)