February 25, 2014 – “Of course technology is fun!” But do we really want to live in the year 2020 with a smart ankle strap that is aware of, and even running, our emotions? Frans van der Reep (Professor at Inholland University) also wants the ‘dark side’ of opportunism and “effortless acceptance” brought to our awareness. In a new column, Van der Reep identifies a number of technological developments and connects these with an analysis of the Rathenau Institute. His arguments are outlined below.
Is technology great? Of course, technology is fun. Of course it’s nice when you come home to a warm house because, on your way home, your Smartphone had earlier determined your position and turns on the heater via the M2M internet connection. Of course it’s nice that your blood values are transmitted, if that is important to you, so that you can lead a normal life.
I see many practical, useful and sometimes life-saving applications. But still… Is there a dark side? It strikes me that tech companies do not question their particular vision of the world, and we, being opportunistic, readily take their bait – at least for now. We accept new toys effortlessly without having to really think about it, let alone think about the ‘big picture’ that looms behind.
It seems to me that there is a dark side to this other side. What will technology mean for you and me, and what will it do to our environment? If you look at Google robotics-oriented businesses, such as Boston Dynamics, bought by Google in 2013, renamed Google Robotics and re-launched on December 15, is now also a company offering room thermostats. It is clear what they want: to know everything about what we say, see, do and think, and how we live and behave. Google Glass literally frames your view of the world and determines – without us being aware of it – how we see the world. And what about killer robots?
And there are many companies that are working in this space. Soon, Google will tell me I should not even go to sleep, that perhaps I should go to the gym? And my self-steering car directs me there, such that when I ask, ‘Can I not go to Noordwijk?’, the response is, ‘Go to Katwijk because it is too busy in Noordwijk.’ Will I give up attention to what is going on around me as I assume that the car will ‘know’ what is best for me?
Mutually reinforcing new technologies in the hands of a limited number of companies are engaging deeply in our lives. They also centralize power and redistribute money to a few people. As Eben Moglen puts it: “The choice is: a definitive life as batteries for the machine, or a life of freedom and autonomy. This is the last generation that can make a choice.” In 2020, do you really want to be walking in the street with your emotionally-aware ankle strap, so you can be removed if you have the ‘wrong’ emotions?
I therefore agree with the Dutch Rathenau Institute on the idea of a technology package insert. Something should indicate what the social and psychological effects of a technology are. But to my knowledge, no tech company has picked up the gauntlet and responded. It seems that the issue has been strategically ignored. On the contrary, under the guise of good deeds, initiatives such as the Singularity University, are accelerating this process, as I have suggested in my previous essay article on this subject.
For instance, we have decisive machines that also have executive ability. We have drones who decide, for example, to murder indiscriminately. This already exists, at the border of North and South Korea. No one is responsible for victims. It is efficient, nice and easy: “I have been a good officer and I have the logistics of my desk well organized.”
A concrete example is the recent Dutch automatic fine process. Fortunately, the Dutch court considers these ‘machine-only’ fines unlawful. This fits with the vision from the Dutch Rathenau Institute, that there is a limit to the responsibility that may be transferred to machines.
Why do I feel such opposition to some of the tech views? Sometimes, I think that here we see the revival of the naive technological advances I believe I know from the early 1960s, from Thunderbirds for example. Let me play the role of the neo-Luddite here a little, as the Singularists would call me.
Where is the vision of man? What does this mean for people, do they want this and would they really appreciate this? What does this mean for their own free will? The consequence of this is that I will live the later years of my life with independently decisive machines via algorithms that register my personal decisions, emotions and behavior, and then evaluate and decide for me. In effect, the algorithm decides. I am not responsible. (witness this in how algorithms have operated in banks over the last 10 years).
More than Focus
The tech-side with companies and research is very well organized, has ample funding, and therefore great marketing power. Moreover, they play smart by continuously linking fun and convenience. Technologies play the anthropological side of the coin – what happens to people and society if technology does not work – will they be fragmented? There is insufficient debate (and counter challenges) about these propositions.
Tech companies seem to take very limited responsibility for these types of, let me call it, social consequences. They see technological development as a given, so be forewarned. The basic message is: Thou shall adapt to the accelerating rate of change and exponential growth in technology. Please remember this lesson, where power comes without responsibility we run into serious trouble.
Neither does the government take the role of the counter-challenging these propositions. I therefore call for us to remove ourselves from this research field, until a new organization takes its place: a study of social and technological innovation and assessment, something similar in approach to the Oxford Martin School. By considering these aspects together, one can build up a body of real content to realize the ideas suggested by the Rathenau Institute. Such a research institution seems to me to be of great value, and will bring more balance into the discussion.
Of course, there is a lot to win with tech. However, the problem is too big and too intrusive for opportunism and self-centered behavior. More than focus, it is a study of alternative or third ways, and going beyond the lament that “all this is already happening.”
Who takes the initiative?
www.Scienceguide.nl, Bijsluiter voor de Duistere kant? 25 february 2014
Sheets of september 23rd speech on the occasion of the Social Media Week Rotterdam,