The Danger of Technology No One’s Talking About
The danger of technology centers on what’s known as the dual-use issue. Namely, that certain powerful technologies can be used for both benevolent and malevolent ends. For example, nuclear energy provides power to hundreds of million of people around the world, but in 1945 was also used to instantaneously kill 120,000 Japanese citizens.
Now there are more than 15,000 nuclear devices with destructive power 10 to 100 times greater than those used in WWII. The United States recently began developing “dial-a-blast” nuclear weapons with an adjustable blast radius. Unfortunately, by enabling the ability to dial down the impact of nuclear weapons, the creators of such technology have dialed up the likelihood they will be used again. Perhaps at some point we’ll wind up with a real-life Raven, the character from the book Snow Crash who was a sovereign nation unto himself because he’d electronically tethered himself to a nuclear warhead. I’m guessing that wasn’t what Einstein had in mind when he revealed E=mc2 to the world.
Nonetheless, the danger of technology will only grow worse as our tech becomes ever smaller and more powerful. Not only will knowledge of it leak out to more and more people over time, but nations or institutions previously seen as the responsible ones will have unstable, untrustworthy leaders come to power and instantly gain access to it. I’m looking at you, United States.
Try to imagine what life will be like in 50 years. Does it seem all that unlikely a disgruntled biologist will at some point have created a new-and-improved recipe for bird flu that leads to a global pandemic? Heck, they’ve already got the publicly available 2012 article from Nature as a blueprint. They won’t even have the additional complication of getting on an airplane to distribute it like Brad Pitt did in the movie 12 Monkeys. Instead, you can rent time on some 3D bio-printers around the world, mix up the plague cocktail on them, rent some remote robotic assistants to pick it up and carry it outside and, voila! Instant world-wide apocalypse, courtesy of Fred, the disgruntled lab tech who lost his job at some pharma research company a month ago.
This danger of technology is, I believe, the fundamental challenge for us as a species. Most of the really big issues we are facing have their roots in our ever-increasing addiction to tech. We recognize global warming is a real phenomenon brought about by pollution from cars and industrial production, but we can’t convince ourselves to stop driving cars or consuming products made in factories. Now we’re about to start genetically editing ourselves, not just to eliminate diseases, but to design babies the way we want them. Soon we’ll have the capability to clone people with desirable traits, and even create completely synthetic people. And if that’s not risky enough, some of us are already working on inventing alien life forms.
Anyone who thinks we’re not going to make mistakes along the way should consider the multiple generations of people who were exposed to leaded gasoline, lead paint, asbestos, leeching plastics, and a wide variety of pesticides, before the scientific evidence of their toxicity became incontrovertible. Splicing and dicing genes is a lot more complicated, so it seems unlikely we won’t introduce errors into our own gene pool. Who can say with certainty what the consequences of tinkering with our very genome will be?
We don’t even need to make mistakes for serious negative consequences to result from the technology we’re creating. Many of the people who actually work on artificial intelligence are concerned about how fast it’s developing and what the near-term consequences may be if clear regulations and standards of ethics are not developed. Right now people are beginning to suss out the situational logic for how self-driving cars should respond in various crisis scenarios. But even if a gentleman’s agreement about how to proceed can be reached among the people working on such technology now, who’s to say others down the road will share the same scruples?
I don’t mean to say no one’s aware of or doesn’t care about this danger. Many if not most of us have a vague sense of unease at the ever-increasing speed of technological change, how we’re supposed to keep up with it all, and whether someone will manipulate it in a truly catastrophic way. But in terms of public discourse, I don’t hear much discussion of the moral and ethical issues that our technology is creating. It seems to be the elephant in the room no one’s talking about.
Partly this is because most first-world societies, led by the United States, prioritize the pursuit of capital over everything, and it seems hopeless to propose anything that would slow that freight train down. But I think an even bigger reason is the pursuit of tech is practically hard-wired into our DNA. It’s what defines us, what has enabled us to survive and thrive overall as a species. However, our success with technology has had the effect of eclipsing concerns about dual-use, and whether there are better ways to achieve our goals. For example, the United States spends 17% of its GDP on health care, more than twice as much as any other country, because we pursue expensive medicines and treatments once a person becomes sick. Much of that could be avoided by simply eating better and getting more exercise. That ethos is seeping into other cultures, where meat-eating, obesity and heart disease are on the rise as they accept more of our fast-food restaurants and sedentary, work-first lifestyles.
Even if one doesn’t hold such a dystopian view and thinks the danger of technology will be outweighed by its benefits, it’s doubtful anyone would deny the world we’re creating is going to be very different than it is today. Fifty years ago we didn’t have microwave ovens, personal computers, cell phones, or cable TV. A hundred years ago we didn’t even have cars or planes. Who can even imagine the things we’ll have created 50 or 100 years from now? The distinction between science and science fiction is collapsing everyday, and the results are certain to blow our minds — if they don’t blow us away first.