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The unasked questions about technology

The idea of what I want to explore in this blog is perfectly captured by the introduction of a journal article from The New Atlantis written in 2003. Eric Cohen wrote;

"The problem of technology — how to spread its fruits, limit its excesses, and save ourselves from its destructive side — ranks high among the great challenges of our time. The problem is so vast, so complicated, so many-faced — from stem cells to fuel cells to weapons of mass destruction — that it is often difficult to keep a level head about it, and often hard for even the most judicious scientists, statesmen, and citizens to know how to think and what to do."

The advancement of technology and science is inevitable, but who is responsible for its containment? The common answer from scientists has always been that they should be autonomous, just let them do their job and society can worry about its implications. Everyone can see merit in this approach, the sooner we find a cure, a solution, an answer to a certain problem the better,- right? Not entirely, if you ask me. With past fantasies becoming reality with new tools such as big data, AI, Internet of Things, and Genetic modification, there are certain questions that need to be answered before we reach a point of no return.

To some of the previously mentioned developments, the ethical boundaries are quite clear. Let's take genetic modification, or in simpler terms scientific body enhancement. Once it becomes a reality that we can structurally improve not only our physical attributes but also our mental capacity who decides how we spread this enhancement? When it first gets introduced to the public it is obvious that only the very rich will be able to afford it increasing the polarization of our society. I am without doubt that this will turn into, albeit over generations, in two separate races almost, where those that have modified themselves to be on a whole new level in comparison to those still on the ground. Should the government or the international community then halt the process of human enhancements while it goes into the lengthy process to decide how to spread its benefits across all levels of society? A difficult question, and perhaps we will decide upon an answer when it becomes a reality.

A more closely related example would be the uses of machine learning. In a recently published article by Google, it showed that algorithm based on self-learning AlphaZero is outperforming the man taught stockfish algorithm in chess matches. Now, what is exactly the significance of one piece of code winning from another in chess? It shows that in this case algorithm that is set up to improve itself rather than run a script that is given is better, implying that if programmed correctly algorithms that teach itself can quickly surpass anything we can write. When you apply machine learning to recognizing emotions you suddenly get a very commercially attractive tool. Ads at the moment are tailored to websites you visit and google searches you have done. But what if it can also recognise when you are sad and thus more prone to impulse buying? Is it still just a normal targeted ad? You can take it a step further even for targeting political campaign ads when someone has a particular emotion. At what stage does it become an intrusion to privacy?

The internet of things is another one of those subjects where it can immensely improve our lives, but data from it equally misused for other purposes. I do not want to proclaim that we haven't had technological advancements that had a major impact on our way of life, but for me, there is a clear difference between a mobile computer in your pocket and enhancing your intelligence. A nice book written by Yuval Noah Harari called Homo Deus goes into topics like these and is worth the read. There is enough academic and non-academic literature out there that goes into these topics, but somehow it feels like that no one is giving us clear answers to ethical questions. But it is worth your time to stop and think about the question, where, for you personally, are the boundaries of human advancement, and who should be in charge.