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Taming Technology’s Social Impact

Careful Which Problems You Solve

Engineering education is all about problem solving. Of course, we learn the basics of some technology – electronics, software, mechanical systems – whatever. But the truth is, the technology almost doesn’t matter because most of the technology-specific things we learn will be obsolete long before we get a chance to practice them in our careers. Instead, what endures are the skills and strategies for solving problems. That discipline serves us for our entire careers as engineers, and it is often the way we self-identify. I am a problem solver.

But problem solving seldom happens without collateral damage.

Our laws and cultural norms are often the biggest recipients of that collateral damage. As difficult and complex as technological innovation can be, the legal and behavioral absorption of that innovation can sometimes be dramatically more difficult. It seems that every major advancement challenges the behavior of the population in which it is deployed. And, from digital imaging to drones to AI, the pace of change is accelerating while our limited human ability to adapt remains fixed.

Consider our notion of intellectual property. For decades, creative works such as music, literature, and photography depended primarily on technology limitations for their protection. That copy of the ABBA’s Greatest Hits LP you bought was a physical barrier to copyright infringement. You couldn’t share it with more people than you could fit into your listening room at one time. If you lent your copy to someone else, you could no longer “enjoy” it. Any copy you tried to make was guaranteed to be vastly inferior to the original, and the process of copying was prohibitively difficult and expensive to pull off in volume. ABBA’s intellectual property rights were enforced by the shortcomings of vinyl.

Fast forward to the digital era. Now, every copy is identical to the original. And unlimited high-quality copies of nearly any creative work can be created and distributed essentially for free. All of the technological limitations that previously protected the rights of the copyright holders disappeared virtually overnight. The result? Massive IP theft on a scale unprecedented in human history. Culturally we still claimed we respected the property of our artists. Legally, those rights were unchanged. But, by suddenly removing all mechanical barriers to theft, even average, otherwise-law-abiding citizens were able to rationalize stealing incredible amounts of art – ironically, from the very people whose artistry they were celebrating.

Innovation had created a disruption that had made pirates of us all, and our legal institutions have proved themselves completely inadequate to stop it. Sure, a few people were prosecuted or successfully sued for particularly egregious copyright infringement. But a massive population of citizen-pirates went entirely unpunished. Engineers had to develop new technology to solve the problems created by their previous solutions.

It is interesting to consider the psychological and sociological elements of technological enforcement of laws. If, for example, intellectual property were replaced with physical property in the previous scenario, would the outcome have been different? If engineers had developed magic gloves that would allow anyone to open any locked door and walk away with whatever was behind it with virtually no fear of prosecution, would average well-meaning people have suddenly engaged in widespread burglary and theft? Does the fact that intellectual property seems more intangible make the act of stealing it more palatable? Or, does the existence of technical enforcement give us something to “push against” so that when the enforcement technology fails, we feel justified in breaking the rules? And – how much of our behavior as a society depends on technical enforcement of rules, and how much depends simply on our notion that we should follow the rules we have made for ourselves?

IoT has the potential for almost unfathomable good, but in its wake comes a plethora of social questions for which we have no answers. The very act of deploying a trillion sensors around the world and connecting them to a giant networked computing infrastructure promises to give us a level of knowledge, understanding, and insight about our world and ourselves that is far greater than humans have ever pondered. That knowledge can do great good or great harm, and it will undoubtedly do plenty of both as the IoT descends upon civilization. Predicting how such disruptive change will be absorbed into our culture is either a fool’s errand or a sci-fi writer’s dream at this juncture.

IoT will force us to completely rethink our notion of privacy. Many of our laws, for example, are based on the idea of “reasonable expectation of privacy.” What happens when technology makes it so that privacy cannot be reasonably expected anywhere? When sensors, cameras, and microphones are omnipresent and watching our every move, how will we as a society control the use of the information and insight those devices provide? We will be forced to make deeply challenging tradeoffs between our health, safety, and security and our desire to keep certain things to ourselves. We will have to think past the simple idea of privacy to weigh the merits of each of the reasons we have for wanting it.

Automation and AI are coming for our jobs as well. There is no doubt that the cumulative effect of all this problem-solving we engineers are doing will be an overall reduction in the number of problems to be solved. Fewer problems means less work. As robots replace humans in more and more fields, will humans find new ways to stay gainfully employed? If not, we face the possibility that income generated from work will gradually disappear, and the only viable way to earn income will be ownership of assets. When the day comes that anything you want can be bought as a service, those who own the infrastructure for providing those services will have all the income. Our economy will require a top-down rethink, and the transition will be ugly. When the day arrives that all the jobs are taken by robots, how will the masses earn a living? And, if the masses are left with no income, how will the service providers make money?

Our ability to advance technologically is dramatically outpacing our ability to adjust to life in the new reality that technology creates. And, there is no “Moore’s Law” for human behavior. We are still basically the same walking, breathing blobs of organic material that we were a thousand years ago. And we will still be the same if we are still around a thousand years from now. Those of us who are engineering the future have a profound responsibility to take that humanity into account as we continue on our problem-solving journey.

One thought on “Taming Technology’s Social Impact”

  1. Very interesting but I think maybe you’re being a little pessimist. If there’s something we humans are good at (and mostly we the engineers) is at inventing new things and finding solutions. With all this technology the future will be great. There’s a lot things we have a little knowledge yet, from the brain to the cosmos for example. So maybe we will have to move our desktop to another areas. Thank

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