Sunday, August 6, 2017

Karl du Fresne: "Progress" has become a matter of what's possible

Some people fret about the threat posed to humanity by climate change. I fret about the threat posed to humanity by technology.

A couple of weeks ago, I used my smartphone to get directions to a motel that I’d booked in Auckland. I only wanted to know how to get there from Queen Street, but of course my phone interpreted the request literally.

Within moments it had mapped out a route all the way from my home in Masterton. It had plotted every turn along the way, precisely calculated the distance (602.2 km), estimated the travel time (7 hours and 25 minutes) and advised me how to avoid the Manawatu Gorge road closure.

This is very impressive. It’s also a bit scary. When a tiny, cheap phone packs more power than the computer that enabled men to land on the moon, I wonder what the limits might be – or indeed, whether there are any limits at all.

Am I a Luddite? I don’t think so. I depend on technology for my livelihood. But that doesn’t stop me worrying about its potential for bad as well as good.

By good, I mean stuff like having instant access to information and services on a scale and at a speed never before envisioned.

By bad I mean stuff like the Dark Web, the epidemic of internet porn, the exploitation of social media by terrorist groups, the rampant hijacking of personal privacy by digital giants such as Facebook, the rich opportunities created for online fraudsters via scams, hacking and ransomware attacks, the venom spread by malicious Internet trolls and the victimisation of vulnerable kids by text bullies.

And that’s just what we know about. Even more disconcerting is the stuff that hasn’t come to pass yet.

I worry about a world in which we’re at the mercy of algorithms which most of us don’t understand. I worry about a world in which we’re given no choice but to join the technological revolution, whether we want to or not. We are all sucked into its vortex.

Humanity, at least in the developed world, has surrendered its fate to technology whose power is advancing at such speed that it threatens to far outstrip our ability to control it or ensure it’s used wisely.

The digital revolution has placed enormous power in the hands of people who are beyond the reach of outdated accountability mechanisms – people for whom technological advance is often an end in itself, to be pursued with little regard for its effect on society. “Progress” has become a matter of what’s possible rather than what’s good.

At the most everyday level, the digital revolution has adversely affected how we relate to each other. In a park during the school holidays, everywhere I looked I saw young mums whose attention wasn’t on their kids but on their phones.

What, I wondered, could have been on their “devices” that was more important than spending quality time with their kids?

And don’t get me started on the business sector, which has eagerly embraced digital technology as a means of placing barriers between companies and the customers they supposedly serve.

The digital revolution has spawned a new language too. When I read articles about technology and its latest applications, I recognise most of the words, yet the meaning is indecipherable. They might as well be written in Sanskrit.

Does this matter? After all, doctors, scientists and lawyers communicate in their own exclusive jargon. But the difference is that digital technology reaches into virtually every corner of our lives, and will do so increasingly. We need to be able understand it, because how can we control what we don’t understand?

Most of all, I fret at the thought of what might still be coming. In a recent BBC radio documentary, computer scientists talked excitedly about the next great leap forward. It’s called quantum computing and it promises to take us to places we don’t even know about.

You could picture the gleam in these technicians’ eyes as they talked about potential “killer” applications. But they didn’t yet know what purposes quantum computing might be used for. It didn’t seem to matter that the problems it might solve are ones that haven’t yet been thought of.

There’s also talk of something called “the singularity” – the point at which computers will be capable of continual self-improvement; of designing and building machines far cleverer than us.

All this greatly excites the bright-eyed evangelists for the digital revolution, but it scares the hell out of me. 

 Karl du Fresne blogs at First published in the Dominion Post.


Neil Harrap said...

Apparently, when the "Singularity" arrives, computers will, in minutes, exponentially create all knowledge and we'll be completely sidelined. Not a happy thought!

Auntie Podes said...

Surely all this blather about quantum computing is simply - blather! Quantum computing, as far as I am able to determine, is simply the same old same old - only more of it using smaller components. It is still the application of logic and programming done by humans. It doesn't suddenly enable 'puters and/or robots to take over the world.

Alan said...

Except Earth is heading towards being uninhabitable by living creatures (including humans) so it is entirely possible that computers/robots become in effect our successors.

Brian said...

The answer Karl, is better phrased by the Great Bard himself

“but that the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
and thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
with this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.”
Hamlet’s Soliloquy.