David Robertson reflects on our most recent science festival, You Have Been Upgraded.
Do you want to hear colour? Or exercise direct control over technology with brain implants? How can we, as a society, make choices about a new suite of potential human enhancements that are rapidly approaching as biotechnology improves?
As part of the Contemporary Science team, it’s my job to look at science and technology trends and consider how they’ll affect our lives. Some subjects – like the ethics of emerging biotechnologies – can be tricky to bring to life in an exhibition. So we work with partners like Unlimited Theatre, experts in creating striking live experiences, to craft special events for our audiences.
You Have Been Upgraded was a festival held at the Museum in March 2015. We transformed a large gallery into a futuristic expo of biotechnology, featuring a constellation of experts and a bold theatrical performance. Unlimited Theatre imagined a world where biotechnologists were elevated to rock star status by a new mega-company. Festival visitors entered a world where the boundaries of what it means to ‘be a normal human’ are broad, flexible and highly personal.
Does that look like an outlandish world? It shouldn’t! The festival only featured current science and technology. 55 experts – including UK and international scientists, DIY biotech enthusiasts, artists and philosophers – converged for four days to talk with our visitors.
Unlimited painted a provocative picture of enhancement, steeped in optimism about the potential for transformation of individuals and society. But, like any technology, there are potential issues and down-sides to human enhancement. We need to discuss these before the technology moves too far to change its path. These issues include access to new technology, to inequality caused by ‘upgrades’, and worries about altering fundamental processes that happen in our bodies and brains.
At the festival, we invited our audience to leave us feedback, in the form of polls on key questions and written comments. Our audience strongly indicated that equality of access and social costs must be considered as this technology continues to be developed.
We’re keen for You Have Been Upgraded to be an informative step in a long-term, society-wide conversation about how we apply biotechnology (you can read the feedback on the festival here). Each subject we featured in the festival could easily spin off further conversations and events – or deep discussions at the pub!
I learned a lot while we created You Have Been Upgraded. The most important message I kept on hearing, and repeating to myself, was not one about science or technology. It was about humanity. Choices made about biotechnology and human enhancement, by individuals, companies and governments, reflect our values and sense of self – so we should all make our voice heard. Science and technology can help us to recognise the diversity already represented in our society. Let’s support, celebrate and expand that diversity.
You Have Been Upgraded forms part of the Who Am I? gallery programme. Who am I? is supported by The Wellcome Trust (Principal Funder), GSK and Life Technologies Foundation (Major Sponsors).