Opinion

Hope for the future in a time of coronavirus, climate change and artificial intelligence: a young person's reality

There are a lot of reasons for young people to worry about the future, but not all hope is lost.

By Bron Reichardt Chu

April 30 2020Bron Reichardt Chu is an astrophysics PhD candidate and one of the organisers of this year’s Conference on Science and Christianity scheduled for July. TMA asked Bron to tell us some of her perspective on the future and the challenges it holds for young people.

COVID-19. You’re probably a little bit sick of reading about it by now. And living through it. I know I am. I sit at the same table for breakfast, lunch, dinner and work. I see the same five people in my house every day. The undercurrents of our discussions on how to keep the kitchen clean, like a flooded river which appears to be calmly flowing along, are gradually increasing in danger. I am running out of excuses to go further than 100 metres from my house, excluding actually running. Staying at home, such a simple and necessary thing, is putting a strain on all of us. It’s also changing the way that we view our world and interact with people.

What does the future hold for humanity? How long will we stay stuck inside? Will the world be different when we all emerge? What part can we, as Christians, play in the world’s future? Maybe you’ve been thinking about similar questions in your isolation.

Social distancing has meant that, maybe like you, I am now working from home. All of my meetings have moved online, and I am remotely accessing the tools I need to do my research. I have four other housemates working from home as well. Four of us are doing PhDs in Astrophysics. During the first week we were all at home, there was one moment where a few of us had separate online video meetings going on. Suddenly, we all poked our heads out of our rooms to see what was happening. Yep, it wasn’t just our computers; the internet had dropped out under the load. I’m sure that you’ve had similar experiences in recent weeks. “Get the NBN” they said, “it’ll be great!” they said. Despite the shoddy Australian internet, we are developing new ways of communicating during our enforced isolation, and technology is becoming even further enmeshed into our everyday lives. How will this technology continue to be used in our future? This is one of the themes of COSAC 2020, a conference I’ve been involved in organising.

COSAC 2020 brings two of my favourite topics together – science and Christianity. Both affect the way I live in and view my world, but it’s really rare that I get to talk about both with the same group of people. My friends at church don’t understand my day-to-day work as an Astrophysics PhD student. My friends at uni don’t understand my faith. I feel that I have even less chances to talk about the interaction between my everyday work and my faith since the “live and let live” push for diversity within workplaces. There is a sense of not being able to talk about our differences, or only celebrating some differences, rather than valuing all differences equally. Sadly, I often feel that I’m allowed to be a Christian as long as I don’t bring my faith in to work with me. Within this climate, conferences like COSAC 2020 are particularly important, giving us the unique space and opportunity to explore how science and Christianity interact and coexist.

I love studying Astrophysics. I research the wavelength signatures of chemical interactions on an atomic level which enable me to trace the movements of gas into and out of galaxies on scales larger than our brains can comprehend. I find it so cool that I get to study how God has made galaxies work! Every time I find out something new it’s like I’m getting to piece together a part of the puzzle of God’s design. And it reminds me that God is a super-creative, detail-loving and ultra-powerful God. But these days it doesn’t feel socially acceptable to share this source of joy with my fellow-astrophysicists. And my friends at church aren’t particularly interested in the latest Gaussian function that I’ve fitted to an emission line from one of my galaxies! So, for me and others like me, COSAC 2020 provides a much-needed opportunity to share, with like-minded people, our excitement about science and the way that our faith informs that excitement.

This year the conference committee has entitled the conference COSAC 2020: A Hopeful Future? We are focusing on the themes of how technology will be used by humanity in the future, how we will deal with climate change, and what role faith plays. “Why the question mark?” I hear you ask. Well, to those of us growing up in the 21st century, it’s not necessarily clear that our future on Earth is full of hope. Especially as scientists, or people interested in science. We see the convincing results from science telling us that humans have a great and damaging impact on the habitats of animals and plants, and even on our climate itself. We also see slow-moving bureaucracy and politicians who don’t seem to be listening. We know that we will have to live with the possibly drastic consequences of previous generations’ decisions. And we feel helpless to change anything. You know that feeling of sitting at home in isolation, powerless to stop your friends and loved ones from getting sick with coronavirus? Many of us feel the same for our climate and our future. There’s now even a name for this – eco-anxiety.

Sure: as Christians we still have certain hope that Christ will return one day and bring with him a new creation. But until then, surely we should be doing a better job of taking care of the Earth God created and gave to us to take care of? How are you looking after and appreciating the creation God’s put you in? What do you think its future is? At COSAC 2020 we will be considering how to deal with eco-anxiety, and how as people of faith we can be better looking after our planet.

COSAC 2020’s other focus this year is how technology is shaping and changing our future. What do you think about technological advances that enable deaf people to hear, or blind people to see? Pretty great, right? What if we extend that to extra-human hearing, or seeing more than the visible spectrum? Anyone could become a superhero! How do you feel about self-driving cars? What if the Artificial Intelligence (AI) that we develop to drive them becomes self-aware? Could it? There are ethical considerations to all of these issues, and as Christians we should think about how living out our faith will inform our attitudes to the future.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! Even in the midst of the craziness that is COVID-19, we can see good things. Less traffic is allowing parts of our earth to return (for the moment) to cleaner atmospheres. The clearing of this pollution will help people with respiratory issues. Social media is becoming truly social and is a lifeline to those of us craving interaction with people outside our own little home-islands. And, if the world has not returned to normal by July, technology will enable us to run a virtual conference – which has the added bonus of being better than air travel for the environment. We can learn from this time how to better face our future. We are socially distanced no more! 

COSAC 2020 is the 12th Conference on Science and Christianity organised by ISCAST–Christians in Science and Technology, which will be held online from 10 to 12 July as well as online.  More details can be found at the ISCAST website: http://iscastcosac.org/ or from ISCAST Executive Director, the Revd Dr Chris Mulherin: ChrisMulherin@ISCAST.org.