Please raise your hand if the thought of doing something that might embarrass you or harm makes you uneasy.
Already hands going up. It could be driving in bad weather. Or wondering if you should eat something or not. Or that nagging feeling that one day, you’ll forget to put your pants on, but you won’t remember until you’re halfway to the office!
Risk is a funny thing. It affects pretty much everything we do. And yet most of the time we treat it like a dirty little secret – something that’s there, but we’d rather not think or talk about. A bit like an embarrassing relative.
This probably isn’t such a good idea though, because if we’re not smart about how we live with risk or think about risk, we’ll end up like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, just hoping everything will go away! Spoiler alert: it probably won’t!
I think about risk all the time these days. It helps of course that it’s my job, and what I’m paid to do. But things weren’t always this way.
Wind back the clock a few years to when I was a teenager. Like most teenagers, I was rather idealistic. I wanted to make the world a better place. But I had a problem. My problem was I was hopeless at most things. In fact, the only thing that I could do was physics, strange as it might sound. And I just couldn’t work out how I could use physics to make the world a better place. I was young at the time, and rather native. I put all my effort into becoming a physicist.
I became a research scientist. I did research that I thought was interesting. Probably no one else did. I published papers that I thought were great. I’m sure no one else read. In other words, I was a “model” scientist! But I didn’t forget that nagging urge to make the world a better place, and partly because of this, I got involved in workplace health and safety research.
What I did was I studied airborne particles. I studied where they were generated in workplaces, how they got to people working there, and how they potentially entered their lungs and caused damage. I did this for over a decade. First of all, working for the British government and then later, for the U.S. government as a research scientist and a research science leader. And over that time, something rather serendipitous happened.
Toward the end of the 1990’s, people began to get very excited about a new technology called nanotechnology. This is the technology of taking matter and designing and engineering it at an incredibly fine scale, down to the level of atoms and molecules. Part of this technology involved creating esquitely small particles that have a range of really unusual properties called “nanoparticles”.
But as people began to do this, they started asking questions like “what happens to these particles if they get out into the environment, when they are not supposed to be there or get into the human body, when they are not supposed to be there? What are the risks?”
Now this was really exciting to me and to understand why it was exciting you have to go back to my PhD, which was at the University of Cambridge in the UK. So this was towards the end of the 1990s. My PhD was in the analysis of what we then call “ultra-fine particles,” nanoparticles using high-end microscopes. When I finished my PhD, I was told “this is great work studying nanoparticles but totally, utterly irrelevant. No one is interested in nanoparticles.” So you can imagine how excited I was to discover that finally, my expertise was of some use.
So I begin to get more and more involved with nanotechnology. This was when I was working for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States. I helped develop their research program there around nanotechnology safety. And I got involved in a group of federal agencies that were looking at how we can develop this technology safely. This began to pull me out of my laboratory and got me more involved in thinking about risk and science and technology more broadly.
But at heart, I was still based in the laboratory. That is where my heart was. And then in the mid 2000’s, I was thrown completely and utterly out of my comfort zone. I was asked to join a Washington DC-based think tank, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And I was asked to join them as the science advisor on a new project, a project on emerging nanotechnologies. This was a project where we were trying to work with all stakeholders, groups of people who are potentially impacted by this technology, to understand how we could develop it responsibly and safely.
So, talk about risk. I was thrown completely and utterly out of my comfort zone. One day I was a lab scientist. The next day, almost literally the next day, I was expected to talk with journalists, not something they teach you to do as a scientist. I was giving congressional testimony, definitely not something they teach you to do as a scientist. And I was working with policy makers, advocacy groups, and even interacting with members of the public. And I must confess. For the first two years, I was absolutely terrified.
But the experience opened my eyes. And perhaps for the first time in my life, I began to see how teenage aspirations to make the world a better place fit together with my scientific expertise and increasingly, my experience and expertise as a science communicator and a science policy expert. And at the heart of everything I was doing was risk.
So you go back to nanotechnology. The nanotechnology I discovered was just the tip of a whole new world of technology innovation and the really urgent challenges of insuring that new technologies develop safely, responsibly, and effectively so they do more good than harm. So here was a challenge that I could really get my teeth into it and it was a doozy. Just think about emerging technologies for a moment. Get your head around this.
It’s easy to see how some new technologies are changing the world we live in. It wasn’t that long ago, that we didn’t have the Internet. Just a few years ago, smartphones were not ubiquitous. When my kids were born, we didn’t have things like Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. These have all had a profound impact on the ways we live our lives. But they are really just the tips of a much larger technology iceberg.
If you take nanotechnology, for instance, this ability to design and engineer matter down at this very fine scale is changing everything around us from super light materials to how we create solar cells to even how we develop the new generation of cancer treating drugs. This is a really powerful technology platform, but it is not the only technology platform.
You look at things such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of things, and even gene editing. These and other technologies are emerging faster than we can keep track of them. And they are fundamentally challenging and changing the ways we live our lives and even how we think about ourselves as human beings. So to be completely honest, and this is the physicist in me, this is a fantastic time to be alive. We have never been surrounded by so much technological ability. But it is also a scary one because each of these technologies can potentially be as dangerous as they are beneficial.
Some of these potential dangers remind are remarkably similar to things we have dealt with in the past. So let me take one example, a game from nanotechnology, carbon nanotubes. These are incredibly fine, long strands made up of carbon atoms. They are incredibly exciting to material scientists. They are incredibly light, strong, and can conduct heat and electricity very well. But if you take the wrong type of nanotube, they don’t all behave this way with the wrong type, and you get it into your lungs it can do a lot of very serious damage. This sounds somewhat similar to challenges we have been facing with industrial chemicals for many years now, but it is a new risk because it is a new material.
On the other hand, we are facing some completely new challenges. Such as possible dangers of self driving cars for instance. Or the security risks of living in a world where everything it seems is connected to the Internet. Whether it is our garage door, our clothes, or our toaster even. Or even the risks of artificial intelligence beginning to threaten our existence and getting to the point where artificial intelligence and computers are so smart they decide the one thing they really cannot deal with is people. Crazy as it seems, it is a risk that a lot of people spend time thinking about. And then some of these emerging technologies fundamentally challenge what it means to be human.
For instance, a group of scientists recently announced that they are starting a project to form the first fully artificial human genome within the next 10 years. They are seeing this as the first step to creating fully artificial people in the lab with laboratory chemicals with no biological parents. Just think about that for a second. Within the next couple decades, we could be designing people on computers and growing them in the lab. Just let that sink in.
So you remember that line in the movie Jurassic Park, you can see where this is going where the character played by Jeff Goldblum says: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think and ask if they should”.
Sometimes with emerging technologies it feels very much like this. So looked at it this way, these new technologies are pretty risky but there is a subtler risk. That is the risk of not developing them in the first place. Because lets face it, for most people in the world, life isn’t perfect. We still have disease, discrimination, poverty and pollution. And in some cases, if we get it right, new technologies can make a difference to these challenges if they are developed responsibly. So how do we make sure that this happens? How do we make sure that we develop new technologies that help build a better world and don’t cause more problems that we are trying to solve with them?
To address this, we are developing a new center at Arizona State University. We are calling it the Risk Innovation Laboratory. It is a virtual lab where we experiment with ideas, and different ways of doing things. We are effectively doing what technology innovators do: we are getting really creative with how we think about risk and we are using this to discover new ways to survive and thrive in a risky world. So to help with this, we are actually approaching risk in very different ways and drawing on people with very difference experiences, all the way through scientists and engineers to artists and social scientists. And one fundamental way, in which we are thinking differently about risk, is thinking about risk as a threat to something that is important.
So I have another question for you. You don’t have to raise your hands this time, just keep it in your head. Think for a moment about what is incredibly important to you. Might be your family. Might be your job. Might be your health or happiness or security or a sense of well-being. Or it could that the freedom to learn new things and invent stuff or build stuff or even, let’s be honest here, to make a ton of money. It might even be the freedom to take risks and be adventurous. Okay so you got that thing in your head. Now imagine how you would feel if somebody threatened to take that away. That thing that is really important to you. As you think about that, you can get a new sense of how to think about risk, that threat to something incredibly important to you or not achieving something important to you. The not achieving is just as important as losing something you already have.
So this is a new way of thinking about risk that can transform our approach to safe and responsible development of new technologies. Thinking about risk as a threat to something that is important helps you work out which is maybe the best way forward here. And this brings us back to risk not just being a four-letter word. Risk is inevitable. It actually makes being alive, what it is.
Perversely, it is actually is something that sometimes makes life worth living. But if we don’t learn to handle it, if we don’t learn to navigate it, it will get the better of us. Because make no mistake, just in case it seems like I have been trivializing things here, I don’t intent to do that, risk is really serious business. Ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist and you have a big problem. Instead, we need to understand it better.
We shouldn’t be shy about talking about it and we need more imagination and more innovation in how we think about it and how we respond to it. If we do this, we will better be able to make this world a better place in spite of the risks rather than failing to do so because of it.