The importance of making right choices — learning from Heisenberg’s example
Today was one of those lucky days in a my life when I got a chance to read two great books in a day — Walter Isaacson’s Einstein — His Life and Universe and Vivek Wadhwa’s The Driver in the Driverless Car. A chain of thoughts were triggered in my mind as I read these books and realised why the choices we make are so important and in some cases, it can even alter the course of history! Let me give you a little background on both the books to get a better context.
The Atomic Bomb Race
During the years of the World War II, German physicists were successful in splitting the Uranium atom and this gave rise to the idea of using that technology to create an atomic weapon which could possibly help Germans win the war. Werner Heisenberg, the famous German physicist who gave us the Uncertainty Principle and later won the Nobel Prize for the same was made the project head in this effort.
Albert Einstein, upon knowing the success of Germans in splitting the atom, wrote a letter to the President of the United States warning them about the potential creation of an atomic weapon by the Germans using this technology. America also started a similar effort on their side under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer. They were really worried that Germans would do it first because of the head start they got as well as because of the fact that a genius like Heisenberg was leading the effort.
However, Americans won the atomic bomb race by creating the bomb first which marked the end of the War and their victory.
Meanwhile, in Heisenberg’s lab-
Scientists: Americans did it first! We lost this one and we are still so far from achieving success!
Heisenberg: Give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you how to do it.
The choices we make
With platform products on the rise in the recent years, be it Airbnb — matching hosts with guests, Uber — matching drivers with riders or the social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where the company itself does not create the content but becomes a platform for content creators to publish and public to access the content, more and more companies are shying away from being accountable for the content on their platform created by third party creators and are not taking full responsibility for it. In some cases, they did not predict that their platform could be used in a harmful way and in few cases, they just do not want to do “the right thing” because of business aspects.
In his book The Driver in the Driverless Car, Vivek Wadhwa offers an approach to help us make intentional choices about the technology we develop and the options we use when faced with uncertainty and ultimately make more informed and mindful decisions. He suggests that whenever developing any new technology, we ask the following 3 questions to ourselves:
1. Does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally?
2. What are the risks and the rewards? And does the rewards outweigh the risks?
3. Does the technology foster autonomy or dependency?
When we ask ourselves these questions, it helps us analyse the ways our creation will impact the mankind.
I’m sure Heisenberg would have asked himself such questions. Even though nuclear reactors would prove to be a source of clean energy and benefit people, the risks of it being used as a weapon outweighed the rewards and Heisenberg consciously made the “choice” of delaying the technology’s development. Imagine, if Germans had made the bomb first, the entire course of history would have changed.
Learning from Heisenberg’s example, I would like to emphasize on why it’s really important that we make the right choices. Even though our wrong choices might not have such immediate impacts, the effects compounds over time and eventually shape the future we want build.
This is true not only for companies as a whole, the importance of making the right choice boils down to an individual—be it entrepreneurs, product managers, engineers, designers etc. If an employee is assigned to develop something which is morally wrong, he/she, as an individual has to take the decision whether they wants to be a part of this and not just later blame the management for the decision. Hence , it’s really important that we keep asking ourselves about the choices we are making as it eventually will shape the future we are building.