Advances in machine learning and genetic engineering are combining to produce rapid advances in medicine, development of materials and genetic engineering. Parallel advances in robotics and automation have made the practical process of gene editing scalable. The possibility exists that advances in quantum computing could further accelerate progress on machine learning, bringing a second boost to this technological rocket. 

This Ditchley conference will bring together an unusual mix of deep expertise and scientific renown in the disciplines; thinkers on religion, ethics and law; investors fuelling innovation; and political leaders looking to shape the approach of society and state to fast emerging possibilities. We will attempt to establish sufficient common understanding of what the science promises and what it doesn’t and then explore the opportunities and risks that are likely to unfold at speed. This will be a first pass at preparation for potential blast off – what should be our moral, legal, economic and national security checklist as we wait on the launch pad of a new age?

The progress on machine learning is quite narrow in scope – deep learning using neural networks and other techniques on large data sets that now exist that didn’t previously and that are store-able and computable in a way that was not possible previously. But whereas progress towards general AI is often overstated, full general AI is not required to radically accelerate gene sequencing, editing and programming, with costs falling all the time and scale and speed increasing.

We will examine and try to come to preliminary conclusions on questions such as the following:

How should the most aggressive genetic engineering technologies be regulated?

How can societies best assess the ethical issues raised by these technologies to find an optimal balance between fostering genetic technologies for the common good while preventing abuse?

What are the implications for the global economy and economic cooperation and competition between states? Are we entering a period of bio-nationalism as well as AI nationalism? Should this be compared to the space race of the Cold War? How can we avoid competition between states driving abandonment of norms and moral standards? What will be the impact on the labour force of the new combined technologies of AI and bio-engineering? Within countries, will potential applications of the new technologies further intensify the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands?

What are the implications of rapid combined advances in AI and bioengineering for defence and national security? Will countries be tempted to pursue military applications either through bio-weapons or through the genetic improvement of military forces? What new materials will emerge and how will they affect the balance of power in warfare?

What are the implications for medicine and public health? If we are able to find targeted genetic cures for diseases like cancer then what will the impact be on the population?  What are the implications for ageing or declining populations?

How should we handle the implications of deeper knowledge about the influence of our genes on our characteristics and on the characteristics of groups? How do we chart a course between remaining scientifically objective and providing material that could be misused to support racist conclusions by those tending to that view?

What opportunities and threats are there in the potential of these combined technologies for democracies and the equal value put on the view point of each citizen in the electoral system and the rule of law? More philosophically, how can we make sure the development of these technologies contributes to a positive sense of human progress and meaning, rather than to a sense of alienation and loss of purpose? How can we manage the tension between science and religion as human capability to shape the genetic world increases?