A flash mob robbed a convenience store in my old neighborhood recently, and the headlines have been full of social media being used for riot coordination (which sounds like an oxymoron) in London. Can the same technologies that have been seen as a hope for those who seek human and civil rights be used for crime and violence? Of course.
Every new technology makes promises that emphasize the positive impacts. (I’m old enough to remember when television was still being touted as the solution for the education crisis of the day.) These new technologies keep their promises, in general, but the inventors can never completely fence off their uses so they aren’t used in less positive ways.
This does not mean that our scientists and engineers shouldn’t try to direct society toward positive applications and warn against dangers. A positive example of this is the Asilomar Conference of 1975, where researchers came together and voluntarily imposed a moratorium on their work, spending a year developing standards for experimentation and public safety.
The early years of computing, with a few notable exceptions, emphasized an ethic of sharing and responsibility. And we have seen success with open source software that has challenged (and sometimes engaged) big corporations. Being hopeful about new technologies can be naïve and will lead to some disappointment as less ethical people enter the next, new promised land, but it may be the reason why – especially in early years – good things happen.
The age of promising technology is not over, and I hope that we bring optimism along with each new entry. New semantic search technologies will help scientists to collaborate across disciplines with incompatible jargon, and probably will expose those organizing to demand human rights, making their work more difficult. Cyber-prosthetics will provide new legs, arms and eyes, but they may also create more deadly soldiers. Sensors will help us monitor the environment and prevent disaster, but they also may be deployed to monitor us more closely. One scientist has already shown that he can hack electronics used to keep a heart beating – and make it stop.
Unfortunately, there is not a technological fix for the double-edged nature of our technologies. But we can look back and see that hope is a better guide to use than fear. Altruism is often a better motive than profit. Social concerns may help direct early applications that include an ethic and may create a basis for whom the most accomplished inventors choose to work with.
Historically, much has been made of the benefits of technologies that have been spun off from military research (the Internet is a great example), but it would be interesting to see if starting points matter. And, within something like military spending, if there is a taint that comes along with inventions developed via research into offensive armaments versus defensive (recognizing this may be a difference without a distinction).
Can we start research in better ways? Can social protections be built in earlier without putting too heavy a hand on researchers? Can we structure emerging fields with checks and balances that limit damage from selfish fast followers? I’m not sure we have good answers. I suspect that working for a deeper understanding of the early days, when fields include more sharing and trust, may provide some guidance.