Technology Proliferation: Threat Or Opportunity?

Introducing Google Duplex

In her interesting and well-written blog about Google Duplex, Lavanya Rathnam presents Google Duplex. Google’s technology enables a new Google Assistant feature of placing phone calls on your behalf, with a human voice instead of a robotic one, to complete “real tasks” for you. If you haven’t yet seen the demo of Google Duplex, view it here. Google Duplex is, in my view, an interesting milestone in technology proliferation.

The Dilemma: Good Or Bad?

Next, the author presents the technology’s upsides (business and personal) and downsides (ethical concerns, privacy), and concludes that it’s too early to tell whether this technology is a boon or a bane.

Media Reports About AI

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been advancing, media and especially numerous bloggers devote much attention to the “threat” of AI. Some raise the fear that robots will take over our jobs; other warn of the threat that AI poses to our privacy. In other words, people sometimes perceive AI negatively, as a threat rather than as an opportunity. I would argue that most people do not truly know what AI is, and when they read that this “black box” (something they do not understand) may take their jobs or may reveal their secrets, it can come as no surprise that they will have a negative perception of the technology.

Technology Is Neither Good Nor Bad

Daniel Burrus formulated it very well in his blog post Is Technology Good or Evil? from 2012. He wrote: “Some say technology is a blessing; others say it’s a curse. Which is right? They both are. Think about it: Technology can give you cancer, and technology can cure your cancer. So it’s not about whether technology is good or bad; it’s about what we decide to do with technology that matters”.

This rationale leads to the conclusion that one must not talk about technology in terms of “good” and “bad”. One should focus on how we use technology.

Technologies At Everyone’s Fingertips

The Past: Centralization

In the past, very powerful technologies were available only to nations (i.e. Governments) with massive budgets, and large amounts of data were stored only centrally by Governments, which were seen as trusted parties (and hence there was no threat in Governments storing our data).

The Present: Proliferation

Today this reality has changed dramatically. Data about “practically everyone” is available everywhere thanks to the broad adoption of social media and mobile technology. Smart high school students or curious programmers can develop powerful software that can change the world, without massive investments. Some cases of such combined curiosity and skills result in successful commercial businesses. For example, Facebook and Google. In other cases, similar curiosity and skills end up with headlines about hackings, for example the story of a British 15-year-old who had gained access to intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Iran by pretending to be head of CIA. Organized Crime groups are also embracing the same technologies. And Governments reportedly influence other countries election results by manipulating people’s opinions through social media (see reports on Russia having influenced the U.S. elections in 2016).

Implication: Our Ability To Control The Usage Of Technology Is Limited

The availability of powerful technologies to anyone, and most importantly the ability of an individual without massive resources to develop a technology that would have a big impact is a fact. Think about a computer virus that is distributed throughout the world via the Internet. Or software that would extract personal information and use it for organized crime, or for creating political unrest which may result in riots and revolutions. This is referred to as the asymmetry of risk (one can do major damage with only limited resources). We need to get used to the new reality in which such power is not only in the hands of central Governments. How do we deal with such a reality?

Societal Debate On What’s Right And What’s Wrong

For most people it is obvious that using AI for saving lives is a good thing, and that using AI for manipulating people’s opinion prior to elections is a bad thing. Those are rather straightforward examples of “right” and “wrong”. But most choices are more complex. We need a societal debate to sharpen our definitions of what’s right and what’s wrong in using technology. Also Academia picked up this topic, and “Responsible AI” is now subject to more and more academic research. Such a debate will inform Governments on regulating the use of technology. The challenge in such debates though is that nobody has the monopoly on deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Neither can there ever be a single definition, because people from different cultures, from different backgrounds and from different realities, define “right” and “wrong” differently.

Government Has A Responsibility As A Regulator

Thus Governments have an important role as regulator. Yet the process that results in the introduction of new laws is very long in many cases. On the other hand, technology progresses at an ever increasing speed, much faster than legislation normally does. Hence Government will also have to adapt to this new environment, and move faster. Government will have to be more pro-active in following technology developments, assessing their implications, and pro-actively developing regulations to protect citizens from abuse of technologies, or from the unintended effects of usages of technologies.

Technology Will Keep Evolving

The fact that something may be used in a bad way does not (necessarily) mean we should avoid having it. Instead, it means that we should make an effort to avoid using it in a bad way. In the case of technology, given that in today’s reality anybody with IT skills can create powerful technology applications, it is not even feasible to stop the advancement of technology.

Back To Google Duplex: Reflection

We started this blog post by introducing Google Duplex, which lead to a broader discussion on the proliferation of technology. Google is one of the most innovative and well-respected companies in today’s world, and yet also its products are subject to the societal debate about how technology is used, and where safeguards are necessary. But given Google’s position and its track record, my view is that Google is not who society should be worried about. Yes, we do need this societal debate. But at the same time bear in mind that Google’s aim is not to create unrest, to expose people or to harm individuals, groups or nations. Safeguards will be implemented, and users will be given the choice of whether and how they want to use the technology (or else Google will cease to exist as a company because its users will stop using it). We should worry more about groups, organizations and individuals whose use of technology we cannot influence using regular market forces. The societal debate and the actions of Government as a regulator are much more critical there.

What are your thoughts? Add a comment below.

Suggested reading:

  1. How Human Intelligence Differs From Artificial Intelligence
  2. Siri, Are We Responsible For Our Own Deeds? Reflections On The Technology Knowledge Gap

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