Navigating the risks and benefits of new technologies
We shouldn’t panic about the risks of new technologies, but neither should we be complacent
As I’m writing this, I’m looking out over the Firth of Clyde, from the Scottish island of Arran. I first came here nearly thirty-four years ago, in 1984, and it’s been an occasional getaway for me ever since. Over this time, there have been changes, but the island still has that comfortable feel of a place largely untouched by the frenetic pace of modern innovation. As if to remind me of this, I’ve been traveling along crumbling roads over the past few days, in a rental car that modern automotive technologies seem to have completely bypassed, while grappling with patchy Wi-Fi and even patchier cell-phone coverage. It all feels a long way from the cutting-edge technologies that have threaded through the previous chapters.
As an outsider, Arran still feels to me as if it belongs to a previous age. Take away the intermittent internet and cellular phone system, and to my off-islander eyes, I could still be in 1984. Yet I find this strangely comforting. Despite sitting here wrapping up a book on the profound changes that emerging technologies are likely to bring about, it gives me hope that there’s life outside the frenzied technological pace at which we sometimes seem to be living our collective lives. And it affirms my belief that happiness lies not in the latest technology, but in the more basic things of life, like food, shelter, warmth, and good company.
Yet there’s a part of me that knows that these dreams of a slower, more pleasant past are a sentimental illusion. Much as I enjoyed my few days of potholed roads, rickety transportation, and intermittent internet connections, I suspect that there are plenty of permanent residents on Arran who have very different opinions about how things are there. Despite the siren-call of nostalgia for a simpler, less technologically complex time, the reality is that emerging technologies, when developed and used responsibly, can and do improve lives in quite powerful ways. There are far too many people in today’s world who are living disadvantaged lives because they don’t have access to technologies that could make them better, and I worry that, if we’re tempted to start renouncing technologies from a position of privilege, we risk denying too many people without the same privileges the chance to make their own decisions. I would go so far as to say that we have an obligation to explore new ways of using science and technology to improve the world we’re living in and the lives people lead.
This is an obligation, though, that comes with some tremendous responsibilities. These include working hard to ensure the technologies we develop benefit people without harming them. But they also include learning how to live responsibly in a world that, through our own drive to invent and to innovate, is constantly changing.
These are tough challenges, and they’re ones that it’s all too easy to leave to “experts” to grapple with. Yet I fear that this is, in itself, an abdication of responsibility. Some of the technological challenges we are facing are so profound, so life-changing, that the questions they raise are ones that we cannot afford to leave solely to people like scientists, innovators, and politicians to answer. The reality is that, if we want to thrive in the technology-driven future we’re creating, and we want to equip our children, and our children’s children, to do the same, we all need to be able to wrap our collective heads around what’s coming our way and how it might affect us. This is no mean feat, though. It’s one that will require a journey of discovery that uncovers the often-hidden links between ourselves and our technologies, and how we can nudge them toward the future we want, rather than one that someone else decides for us.
Through the book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, I set out to show how science fiction movies can help point the way along this journey, flawed as they are. As I’ve been researching and writing it, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of how the movies in the book can expand our appreciation of the complex relationship between technology and society, not because they are accurate or prescient, but precisely because they are not tethered to scientific accuracy or to realistic predictions of the future. It’s their creativity, and dare I say it, their entertainment value, that helps open our eyes to seeing the world in new ways which, when seasoned with feet-on-the-ground thinking, can help us better understand what innovating responsibly means.
Yet, for all their usefulness, there are dangers in getting too wrapped up in science fiction movies as we think about the future. Moviemakers draw on what we can imagine now, based on what we already know; they cannot invent what’s yet to be discovered. And in most movies, science and technology are simply devices that are used to keep a human-centric plot moving along. This is precisely why they excel at revealing insights into our relationship with technology. But at the same time, it makes them a poor guide to the technology itself, unless, like in the book, they’re used as a stepping- off point for exploring new and emerging developments. There is another danger, though, and this is that, without a good dose of scientific facts and social realism, science fiction movies can leave us with a misplaced impression that we’re careering toward a hopelessly dystopian technological future, and there’s not a lot we can do about it.
In 1978, the British Broadcasting Corporation first broadcast Douglas Adams’ original radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide quickly gained a cult following and introduced millions of listeners to the fictional guide of the title. In 2005 — four years after Adams’ death — the series was given the Hollywood treatment. It wasn’t the best movie ever made, truth be told. But with its irreverent look at life in a complex galaxy, and an even more complex society, it does provide a fitting book-end for journey taken through Films from the Future.
I am, I must confess, a great admirer of the skill with which Adams creatively melded together odds and ends of ideas from very different places to create new ones in his work. He was, of course, well known for his often-absurd humor. But beyond the humor (especially in the book and radio series), The Hitchhiker’s Guide provides a remarkably astute commentary on our relationship with technology. More importantly, though, the fictional “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” on which the series/book/film is based, has the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
In today’s socially and technologically complex world, this is sage advice. Of course, we shouldn’t be complacent — far from it. Without a doubt, there are deep pitfalls on the road before us as we build our technological future. And there are a multitude of ways in which we can well and truly make a mess of things if we don’t think about what we’re doing. And yet, I’m optimistic enough to believe that we have the collective ability to develop new technologies in ways that work for us, not against us. And here, “Don’t Panic” is as good a piece of advice as any.
There are, of course, many problems that we cannot solve with science and technology on their own. Just like you can’t buy love and happiness with money alone, you can’t simply “science” your way to them either. But if we’re smart about it, we can use science and technology to make love and happiness—and the many other things that are important to us—that much easier to achieve. If we can keep a clear head about us, and don’t fall prey to panic, or become so enamored by the tech itself that we become blind to its potential downsides, we have a decent chance of building a better future together by developing and using emerging technologies in ways that do more good than harm.
Because of this, I feel the words “Don’t Panic” are particularly apt here. There is, though, another passing resemblance between the book Films from the Future and Adams’ fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and this is the way that neither claims to be a comprehensive, infallible, all- encompassing guide.
Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a sort of Lonely Planet guide for galactic travelers who are looking for a great time on a low budget—doesn’t even pretend that it can reveal and explain the vast complexity of the galaxy to its readers. Instead, it focuses on what galactic hitchhikers really need to know, like how to get from A to B while having a good time, how to avoid getting killed, and where to get the best drinks. This, of course, is a long way removed from Films from the Future. Yet, when I started to write the book, two things quickly became very clear. The first was that, for most people, what they really want when looking for a guide to the future is something that helps them get from A to B while having a good time, how to avoiding getting killed, and where to get the best drinks. The second thing was that no one ever reads an overlong, overweight, and utterly incomprehensible guide.
Sadly, this book fails miserably on the “where to get the best drinks” front. But I’d like to think that the chapters that form its backbone, and the movies they’re based on, take readers on an interesting journey, and one that provides at least a glimpse of how we can work toward creating a technologically sophisticated future, while not creating more problems than we solve on the way.
That said, much like its galactic counterpart, the book is a very incomplete guide. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of being one of the contributors to the annual list of Top Ten Emerging Technologies published by the World Economic Forum, and I can safely say that, out of the many emerging technologies we’ve highlighted to date, there are only a handful that appear here. There are no self-driving cars in the book, and no advanced nuclear reactors. There’s no precision medicine, or hydrogen-powered vehicles, or quantum computing. And there’s absolutely no mention of blockchain. The reason, of course, is that the world of technological innovation is so vast, so complex, and so fast-moving that any guide that attempted to explain everything would end up achieving nothing.
Rather, I set out to focus on how we think about technological innovation, society, and the future, while exploring some intriguing, but by no means comprehensive, developments on the way. And by drawing on the imagination and creativity of science fiction movies, I hope this book achieves this. It may not teach you how “deep learning” works, or the intricacies of CRISPR-cas9 gene editing. But the journey it covers, starting with Jurassic Park and de-extinction, and ending with Contact and the search for extraterrestrial life, has hopefully left you with a new appreciation for how science and technology intersect and intertwine with society, and how, working together, we can help use this to build a future that everyone benefits from.