Meet the cybernerds

`FutureWatch' is a new, predictive version of `The Moral Maze', dedicated to 21st century dilemmas. Rosalind Miles, who is a member of the panel, explains why she finds the programme - and her fellow guests - deeply unnerving
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Sundays will never be the same again. This weekend BBC1 launches a Sunday night series designed to divide families and finish friendships with a riveting sci-fi vision of the world to come. Sliding out with deceptive innocence from the team that gave us Heart of the Matter and The Moral Maze, FutureWatch explores the moral dilemmas facing society in the next century. Focusing on hot topics such as mind control and cybersex, FutureWatch seems guaranteed to expose the limits of our tolerance as well as of our knowledge of the world. "There'll be tears before bedtime," predicted one of the production team hopefully. "And afterwards, too."

Doubtless the sane part of the nation will still trudge up to bed at 11.30pm on Sundays clutching its cocoa and headed for dreamless sleep. Others, however, will be astonished, enticed or appalled at what they see and hear. For the six-part series reveals innovations and experiments that most of us have no idea have been taking place. Without our full knowledge or awareness, it seems, the frontiers of science and technology are being pushed further and further towards the limits of the human imagination, in pursuit of our limitless desire for personal gratification and ultimate control. And what comes out may make even the most ardent futurologist want to step back a timewarp or two.

It also makes it very clear that all these developments are taking place in a warp of their own, with no single body or authority responsible for monitoring or co-ordinating what is going on. It is to fill this gap that the series was dreamed up in the first place. "We wanted to confront the `what ifs' of the future and look at the effect of the social and scientific breakthroughs that are changing the way we are and the way we're going to live," says the series producer, Anne Reevell.

With this earnest, even high-minded focus on the future, it is endearing that the series follows the good, old-fashioned Brains Trust formula, with talking heads telling us all we ought to know. Each week Michael Buerk will chair a panel of four experts from the worlds of science, technology, ethics and morality, and one outsider. I am not sure quite what it takes to be an outsider to all those worlds with their crucial frames of reference, but I was not insulted to be offered this seat on the edge.

The weekly panel debate is framed by a series of scenarios from the future, written and dramatised in video diary form by the science fiction writer Michael Marshall Smith. His vision of the future, as lived by himself and his wife Alice, forms the springboard for the panel to explore the dilemmas that increased scientific and technological control will bring to everyday life. If Alice can live until she is 187, for instance, and remain fertile all that time, how does a family hold together when the newborn child is younger than its own great-great-nephew?

The production team had some difficulty narrowing down the topics for treatment into six neat packages. Sex selected itself, of course. With the development of artificial wombs, what if we don't have to have sex for reproduction ever again? What if we don't have to have sex as such, but can just clamber into a pleasure suit programmed to give us the touchy- feely TOE (Total Orgasmic Experience)?

What if we don't have to bother with another human being, or deal with all the gruesome body-fluid stuff, but can have blast-your-brains-out cybersex, totally person-free? ("And disease-free!" trumpet the boffins, as if every human being were a walking germ pool. To a pure scientist, perhaps he is.)

Mind and memory also grafted themselves on to the agenda, following a daft but effective recent marketing campaign by BT which sold us the idea that we could download our brains on to disks, store our memories, and replay them for others like a Rocky Horror Show souped-up version of our holiday snaps or home videos. Would we (should we?) all take memory-enhancing drugs? Would life be easier if we could just ask our PCs to tell us Dad's or Shakespeare's birthday, or when dinner is due? Would the brainy people still be best at exams? Would there still be exams? And what about the bears of little brain, the Winnie the Poohs suffering information anxiety through overload of material irrelevant to their lives and the simple search for honey?

Other subjects in the series include Animals, Surveillance, Drugs, and Ageing, with the "what-ifs" again to the fore. Debating the themes are a young, fresh and undeniably sexy panel of experts, impeccably balanced by gender.

For the boys, John Browning is the technology buff, a whiz on the Internet and in love with the great cyberworld "out there". As executive editor of the futuristic avant-garde magazine Wired, Browning is puffed as "the cutting edge of the future-on-line". While he heralds the new technology, his opposite number, the former editor of the Catholic Herald, Peter Stanford, is into the new morality. Stanford is the author of the book and TV series Catholics and Sex. As he tossed back his mane of chestnut locks, a female production assistant observed that he was a good advertisement for both.

For the girls, Professor Susan Greenfield leads with the sort of clout only the first woman to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas lecture in 165 years can provide. An Oxford neuroscientist and professor of pharmacology, she has been called the female Richard Dawkins, and diplomatically refused to be drawn on whether that is a compliment or not.

The fourth expert, Professor Sheila McLean, is the first holder of the International Bar Association Chair of Law and Ethics in Medicine. Her field covers the ethics of assisted suicide and non-clinical research on human subjects, as well as the general area of human rights in various social situations.

All four experts are highly intelligent, thoughtful, deeply versed in their subject areas and willing to debate. Nor can it harm the series one bit that they are all charming, good-looking and well-groomed, with the blonde Greenfield and the dark McLean like the intimate thinking man's toothsome twosome, an academic Snow White and Rose Red.

Why then did I so constantly find myself at odds with the whole pack of them? Why did I end each debate wanting to knock their heads together to let the light of a little common sense into the darkness of their erudition? Why did I descend (moi, the voice of common sense) into snarling, Beano- type insults at "potty boffins" and "barmpot scientists", insisting on the overriding importance of the human factor even as I displayed some of its least attractive characteristics?

Partly because these are deep waters, even for those of us deemed "expert" enough to have an opinion worth inflicting on the rest of the viewing world. I was appalled and disgusted by some of what I learned, and even more appalled to find myself as disgusted as Edna of Tunbridge Wells.

But chiefly it was alarming to learn how much scientific research is taking place with very few checks and balances other than financial constraints or the simple limitation of time. "It's our job simply to do the work," they say. "It's up to other people to worry about the implications."

As this series shows, no one is performing that role. Yet it has never been more necessary. Never in history has today's impossible dream more quickly become tomorrow's reality. And for all the wonders of modern science and technology, no one has yet worked out how to get the genie back into the bottle once it has been called out. I found myself constantly at odds with the scientistic faith that just because science or technology can do something, they should. It reminded me depressingly of a debate on pornography during which a female executive in that dismal trade kept stubbornly insisting "If y'can do it, y'can view it". Yes, you can, but who says you should?

As it debates the moral and ethical issues involved in the new scientific and technological breakthroughs, the series will offer a vision of paradise to some, a rhapsody on human potential. For others it will be bleak evidence that the mad and the cruel have taken over and that boffins, bureaucrats and cyberberds now rule the world

`FutureWatch' begins on BBC1 this Sunday at 11.30pm. Dr Rosalind Miles is the author of `The Women's History of the World', `The Rites of Man: Love, Sex and Death in the Making of the Male', and `The Children We Deserve: Love and Hate in Family Life'.

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