The Futurian
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The Futurian

Can we trust technology?

THE FUTURIAN #1

Technology is not new. Neither are questions about its trustworthiness. Humans have employed technology for thousands of years to accomplish specific tasks and achieve individual and societal goals. The sailboat, printing press, steam engine, and electricity are but a few of the technological advances that have enabled human progress. In many cases significant numbers of people have not fully trusted these advances. They were right to do so.

Technological advances over the next decade make the question of trust even more important. Possible advances include allowing artificial intelligence to make important decisions for us, editing genes, augmenting humans, allowing widespread use of autonomous vehicles, deploying autonomous lethal weapons, and creating brain computer interfaces. Like technological advances throughout history, they will be designed to help people complete specific tasks and accomplish their goals and the goals of their societies. There are, however, key differences with these new advances that make questions of trust even more important.

The technological advances that will likely emerge during the next decade will stretch our notion of privacy, change how we think about human autonomy and responsibility, and even challenge what it means to be human. They have the potential to make us more productive and our lives much easier, but they also might cause significant harm and negatively impact much of what we value as individuals and communities. For example, we are already seeing companies provide employees with insertable chips that can be used to access facilities and equipment at work. Companies are also monitoring employees during work to measure their productivity and track their activities. Widespread and required use of these technologies crosses, for many, the lines set by our conceptions of privacy. From a broader perspective, our use of and reliance on technology has made the world more complex and interconnected than ever before. A failure of technology in one state can have dramatic effects that are felt around the world.

Therefore, like those who dealt with earlier technological advances, we must not blindly trust the technological advances that occur over the next decade. Technology is a tool that can fail to perform its functions, be misused or incorrectly used, and have unintended consequences. Those who use a product that employs a specific technology must know how to determine if it is trustworthy and how to identify indicators that it is not performing properly. Those who create and regulate technology must consider during its development and use whether and how it could be misused and what unintended consequences might be brought about by its development and use. Appropriate steps must be taken based on what is found.

Even today, we can see the dangers of blindly trusting technology. There are reports of people driving into a lake or house because they followed GPS directions and ignored signals that would be obvious in a pre-GPS world. Users of technology must be able to verify that it is operating properly and that they have inputted correct information. This is easier to do with some types of technology than others. If we are using a calculator to add 287 and 367, we recognize that if the result is 105,329 we must have done something incorrectly. Similarly, keeping one’s eyes open for indications of danger, especially a sign that indicates that you are driving towards a lake, are ways maintaining a healthy scepticism about GPS directions. Of course, this becomes more difficult with more advanced technology, yet it is important that we retain a way of doing this.

We must externally confirm the reliability and reputation of those who create new technologies. This is easier today with the abundance of reviews written by customers and those written by reputable experts who review products. We do this when purchasing products such as smart phones and virtual assistants, especially when the product is first released. These types of reviews allow us to have more trust in technology, but we must ensure the reviews and reviewers are trustworthy.

To ensure people adopt the right attitude and level of trust towards technology, education at all levels must address the history and purpose of technology as well as the challenges and opportunities associated with developing and using it. Students must also understand how some types of technology work, how they might be misused, and potential unintended consequences associated with their development and use. This is especially important for technologies like artificial intelligence and gene editing that will have an outsized impact on our individual lives and our societies over the next decade.

More importantly, education should impress upon students the need to maintain a healthy scepticism about existing and emerging technologies and how to act upon that in ways that ensure technology is as trustworthy as possible.

Because technology is playing an increasingly significant role in our lives, we must ensure that ethics, law, and oversight keep pace with technological advances. Those producing technological advances must thoroughly test new products and be transparent about their reliability, how they might potentially fail, and the dangers of these failures. They must also explore with others the deeper impact, especially negative effects, on our human capabilities and on society of the use of certain technologies. For example, what would it mean to our idea of being human to use an advanced neural link between our bodies and technology? How would this impact inequality if only a small percentage of citizens could afford this neural link? In the same way that we rely on reviews for commercial products, experts must evaluate the trustworthiness of technologies employed by companies and governments.

Governments must adopt this approach when, for example, deciding whether to produce and deploy lethal autonomous weapons and allow widespread use of autonomous vehicles. Because these technologies can cause harm while operating independently of human control, they must be monitored extremely closely and scrutinized even more than others. Inclusive conversations on potential consequence of technology development and use, and appropriate laws and safeguards, are essential.

Technological advances are always met with at least some sense of distrust. This attitude is justified, and we must continue it. Accidents throughout history demonstrate that technology can fail — look at the Titanic which was hailed as the most technologically advanced ship of its time. And we know that technology designed for benevolent purposes is often used for malevolent ones. As the possibility of artificial general intelligence becomes more likely, trust must be at the forefront of our public discussions.

© Chris Mayer 2021

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The Futurian is a foresight magazine devoted to looking at how the future will be experienced. Many pockets of the future are seen today. We aim to examine those seeds of the future and how they impact upon the world in which we live.

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Chris Mayer

Chris Mayer

Higher Ed leader & Philosopher thinking about the future of higher ed, leadership, and work, and ethics. Views are my own.

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