earth fire water and wind 645

Earth, fire, water, and wind

Technology’s unpredictable “dark side” means our best ideas are also often our most dangerous, one of the world’s best-known scientists says.

Professor Robert Winston, a Briton who fronted the BBC series Child of Our Time and The Human Body, will give a public lecture in Wellington on Tuesday based on his latest book, Bad Ideas?

“Good ideas take a long time to mature and secondly, are quite unpredictable,” he said yesterday. “The reason why they’re bad ideas is because, without exception, every single major invention has a dark side, a downside, that we don’t predict either.”

The internet – “one of the most democratising influences in our society” – also had an enormous underbelly. “The internet is capable of producing misleading information, pornography, violence, sedition and now we’ve got to the stage where the internet can be intercepted and corrupted. There’s no doubt that cyber-terrorism is one of the big threats of the modern age.”

4 Robert Winston

Robert Winston

Even farming, one of our earliest inventions and still of huge importance to economies such as New Zealand’s, had resulted in a pandemic of diabetes. “That has come about because we stopped being hunter-gatherers. We started to eat more carbohydrates and live more sedentary lives.”

The solution was not to halt technological advances, but to understand them and their potential, both good and bad. That was true for both the public and scientists, Prof Winston said.

His first experience of using a MRI machine was in the mid-70s, producing images of a rabbit that were blurry. “I thought: `This will never be of any use at all for human medicine.’ It’s extraordinary to think how the MRI machine now is one of the most important diagnostic tools.”

Scientists could no longer “stand on a lecture podium” – they had to communicate to the public what they were doing more freely and effectively.

Roles such as New Zealand’s chief science adviser could be very valuable if used in the right way, he said.

“Scientific advice does affect and should affect every part of government.”

In return, the public needed to be scientifically literate. “We have to focus much more on the education of young people. Science should be … absolutely embedded in our culture.”

DaVinci Inventor Showcase on Nov 5th