Why the future of being human is the most important question of our time
CIFAR’s Global Call for Ideas, on the “The Future of Being Human,” explores the long-term intersection of humans with science and technology, social and cultural systems, and our environment.
We spoke with Mark Daley, CIFAR’s Vice-President, Research about what’s different about this Global Call, and why the future of being human is the most important question of our time.
Why is this (the future of being human) such an important question right now?
This is one of the foremost questions on everyone’s mind today. Even before the pandemic, we were living in a society that was becoming increasingly fragmented, with the rise of authoritarianism, a decline in multilateralism, a turning inward and general unwillingness to cooperate. And this has come after some decades of progress on multilateralism and cooperation.
At the same time, in parallel, we’ve developed new science and technologies that are changing our society faster than evolution can adapt, for example: social networks. Contrary to the expectations of many computer scientists, like myself, we’ve seen that these tools have not brought the world together, but often create more dissonance, fragmentation and disparity. These technologies have created wedges between groups and forced us to retrench into smaller social circles. If we’d just asked the sociologists, they could have warned us of this! So that’s a clear-cut example of needing a diversity of disciplines and expertise to really understand the implications of novel technologies.
It gets right to the heart of who we are at CIFAR, as an organization. Our focus is on the long term, on research that transcends disciplinary boundaries, and on high-risk, complex questions. Understanding what it means to be human is not something that any one discipline can lay claim to. CIFAR has always been all about asking complex, interdisciplinary questions, and we’ve built an international reputation for doing just this. So we’re ideally suited to convene this type of discussion.
This is a pivotal moment for science. Why is CIFAR so well-suited to this question, at this time?
Most research funders support defined projects and programs, with well-defined outcomes. That’s a very safe way to fund, because you know you’re probably going to get results that are patently clear and useful. CIFAR’s approach is different, and always has been. We ask our fellows to pursue much longer-term questions, in cooperation with other disciplines with whom they don’t typically interact. We’re bringing together disparate groups and incubating them in an environment where they can learn each other’s language, in a safe space where everyone is there to learn from each other.
We don’t have hard demands with deliverables and timelines for outputs, like “You’ve got to have a working robot by six months into the program.” Instead, we want them to ask the big questions, converse, debate, and see what bigger questions and ideas emerge.
What is different about Global Call 3?
CIFAR’s previous two Global Calls were completely open, with few constraints. What’s different this time is we have a theme, chosen after months of consultation. We did strategic foresight exercises with thought leaders through our Futures Council process. The President’s Research Council was deeply involved in formulating the final theme. And the resulting theme is deliberately broad, but also directed, and it brings an anthropocentric lens to research.
CIFAR also now has a robust equity, diversity and inclusion policy. The plan is not just aspirational, it’s procedural. Every decision we’ve taken, every step in our process, has been put through this lens of EDI and we require the applicants to show how they’re going to engage with EDI commitments through the proposed programs.
We’re also looking to broaden our disciplinary diversity with this call. We have room to grow in representation of the humanities and social sciences in our programs. There’s a British philosopher, William Whewell, who came up with the term “consilience,” a special kind of convergence when the natural sciences and the humanities each bring their set of tools and intellectual frameworks to a question and get the same answer. It’s the most powerful way of exploring the human condition and the limits of human knowledge. So we’re hoping to see some of that thinking emerge through the Global Call.
This Global Call is happening as the pandemic is ebbing in parts of the world, while in others, not so much. What are the impacts of this?
The parts of the world that are emerging from the pandemic this year are mostly wealthy, industrialized nations, representing only a fraction of the world’s population. We know that most of the world is not emerging from the pandemic anytime soon. That fact alone is a powerful exemplar of the disparity in our global society. It’s a poignant and powerful reminder that asking about the future of being human necessarily involves questions about governance, about human rights, and the commitments we have to each other as fellow travelers on this planet.
If you ask, “What is the future of being human?” to Mark Zuckerberg, you’re going to get a very different answer than if you ask someone who’s lived most of their life within 20 kilometers of a small community in the Amazon basin. And that second viewpoint is probably more interesting, and rarely heard from in Western media and academia. We need greater diversity of thought and experience. So we’re really excited about the range of viewpoints and inputs that will come about with this truly multidisciplinary, multi-dimensional Global Call.
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.