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Photo via GeekWire Summit/Futurists panel
Photo via GeekWire Summit/Futurists panel/(left to right) Ramez Naam, Ed Lu, Nancy Kress and moderator Frank Catalano

It’s almost a great setup for a joke: What happens when an astronaut and two science fiction writers walk into a room, but the GeekWire Summit audience got a real treat when these big thinkers came together to talk about the future of science — and whether we’re headed for a dystopia or utopia.

Ed Lu, an astronaut/physicist who has done two shuttle missions and a stint on the International Space Station; Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress; and former Microsoftie and author Ramez Naam offered their takes on major issues, including humanity’s greatest threats and achievements. And they did not disappoint with their viewpoints.

When moderator Frank Catalano asked them what keeps them up at night they had decidedly different concerns.

“We are way overdue for the next large plague,” Kress said.  “We do not have antibiotics that are very good. There are approximately 700,000 deaths globally, 50,000 in U.S. alone, from infections that are resistant to everything we can throw at them. We are vastly underprepared for any plague or infection.”

Photo GeekWire Summit
Photo GeekWire Summit/Naam and Lu

Lu was the optimist here, saying that we would actually have the technology to detect and thwart a major asteroid from hitting the planet within 10 to 15 years. He works on the Sentinel Project, a group that is building a spacecraft that will map space and track asteroids.

Naam was also optimistic, pointing out major accomplishments. “Sure, bad things have happened, and more bad things will happen, like issues with climate change, but in the last few decades we have cut poverty in half, hunger in half, more people live in democracy than ever before.

“It’s undeniable to me that the world is getting much better. My best bet for 2030 is that the world will be substantially better than today.”

In a dystopia vs. utopia quick-fire round, the panelists took on a list of items and had to pick sides, or choose “it’s complicated.” All three are fans of Uber as a viable alternative to mass transit and self-driving cars, while robots crossing the “uncanny valley”  and the Internet of Things fell into the “it’s complicated” camp.

All three panelists also have high hopes for private industry, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, stepping up our space exploration game. And they love the idea of becoming more interconnected as more people gain access to smartphones and WiFi.

When it came time to give America a grade for our collective understanding of science-related topics, the futurist panel wasn’t so optimistic.

Kress gave us a solid D.

Photo via GeekWire/Kress
Photo via GeekWire/Kress

“When I was teaching college, I was using Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and we were going over the differences between Mars and Earth, and a student raises his hand and goes, ‘Miss Kress, I heart the atmosphere on Mars is really thin and only comes up to your knees,’ ” she said.

“At first, I thought he was joking, but then I saw that he was serious. We are bad at teaching basic facts, but also checking them. Unless we do better, we are not going to get the kind of funding and population acceptance for science to move forward.”

But, as the optimist Naam said, science is becoming cooler, especially the tech world, and he used GeekWire as an example.

“Think about GeekWire,” he said. “Twenty years ago, ‘geek’ was not cool when I was growing up. There’s been a sea change in the attitude of society, and now being a geek is a hot thing.”

“People in tech can move fast and deliver stuff that people can touch,” Naam continued. “And if we can find ways to get other types of science into the market place and in front of people that will increase its sex appeal.”

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