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Event explores uncertainty in emerging technologies realm

More then 100 MIT students, professors, and industry and government experts convened for a symposium on "Emerging Technologies: Recognizing Uncertainty and Assessing Implications." The April 12 event, sponsored by the Program on Emerging Technologies (PoET), was the Technology and Policy Program's annual symposium.

Professor Daniel Hastings, one of PoET's principal investigators, provided an overview of the problem of decision-making and uncertainty, explaining that the staggering rate of technological change has created a world of two cultures: a public that doesn't understand scientific advances, and scientists who don't understand public issues.

"We need integrative leaders that can transcend both sides of this divide," said Hastings, who is also co-director of the Engineering Systems Division (ESD). Fellow PoET principal investigators Kenneth Oye and Dava Newman added that collaboration has to take place early on, before a "lock-in" occurs between public policies and private strategies.

Speakers discussed dealing with uncertainty in biotechnology and ubiquitous computing, with emphasis on economic, ethical, cultural and security issues.

Marc Goldberg of BioVentures examined a mismatch between existing medical insurance and payments for disease treatment, and impending advances in disease prevention and screening. Joshua Cohen, head of political science and professor of philosophy, examined ethical debates over technologies that may slow down aging or improve intelligence, strength, speed or appearance. And former United Nations bioweapons inspector Rocco Casagrande of Abt Associates offered a chilling review of uncertainty associated with security implications of biotechnology developments.

PoET is a new collaboration between the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS), involving ESD's Technology and Policy Program, the Department of Political Science, the Center for International Studies and the Program in Science, Technology and Society. PoET was recently awarded a $2.9 million five-year grant by the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT--see MIT Tech Talk, Feb. 11).

"One of the few things I believe we do poorly is consider the ramifications for society of the very knowledge we generate," President Charles M. Vest said. "So I'm pleased with PoET's gathering momentum and grateful for the NSF's IGERT program. This is the right time and place to expand and integrate across our scholarly and organizational boundaries."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 28, 2004.

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