Every year-end is a time for reflection and looking forward. And for generating lists of top tens — worst videos, greatest moments, best cars, biggest lies, etc. My favorite lists involve technology, and in particular thinking about associated social, economic, cultural and ethical implications.
IBM probably gets the prize for the lamest list with their just released annual year-end “5 in 5” trends. It’s what they call “the five innovations that will change our lives in the next five years.” IBM’s experts tell us that:
- Classrooms will “learn you”
- The retail trend is back to local bricks-and-mortar
- There will be an increased use of DNA testing by physicians to cure your ills.
- You’ll have your own digital security protection.
- Smart phones will make cities easier to live in.
Yes, IBM’s list has important implications and it is accurate. But given the torrid pace of technology change now underway, the 5-in-5 seems oh-for-five in deep insights or excitement.
Then there are the tech lists such as those from Popular Science for example, which are a lot of fun but are more focused on specific products and gee-whiz trends.
If you want to fire up your neurons here at year-end, I recommend reading over the now annual release of “emerging ethical dilemmas and policy issues in science and technology” from the University of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center. (Full disclosure, I’m on the Center’s Advisory Board – and though I wish I could take credit for it, I had no input on the list.)
Even though the list from Notre Dame is more provocative than IBM’s, each and every technology has already been demonstrated or deployed. So while for the uninitiated some of the following may seem like science fiction, there is the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.” In fact, much of what’s on this list has inspired novels and movies. And the Reilly team has helpfully provided links to articles and resources to dig deeper into each domain’s state of affairs.
Following, the Reilly top 10 along with a sampling of their associated ethical questions posed.
- “At what point does the possibility of a crime require intervention?”
- “Does turning animals [cockroaches] into cyborgs treat animals as ‘toys’ or give us a new appreciation for their complexity?”
Data chip implants
- “Can these implants become a mandatory form of ID?”
- “[How does this change] the norms and values in human interaction?”
- “Will Bitcoin lead a revolution in currency, or go the way of the Zimbabwean dollar?”
- “Neurostimulation can be used to boost motor function, improve memory…Do we have a responsibility to be the best humans we can be?”
- “One nation’s policy decision could immediately and adversely affect another country’s economic well-being.”
Property rights in space
- “What rights do private companies have to outer space if they provide the primary, or even sole, means to reach it?”
Automated law enforcement
- “At what point is human instinct and judgment necessary in the enforcement of law or prevention of crimes?”
- “When we can make our bodies part machine, is it necessary to redefine personhood?”
It should be no surprise that, like IBM’s list, most of what drives the Reilly list arises from the systemic impacts of Big Data and the related techno-ecosystem. As big as Big Data has been made out to be in the blizzard of media attention it received this past year, there is much more yet to come, and some of it surprisingly soon as the Reilly list’s hyperlinks make clear. The ethical challenges posed are not just relevant for we citizens but for politicians and business leaders as well.
Of course the Reilly Center list’s zeitgeist is in keeping with this season, arising as it does from its mission – a focus on the intersection of ethics and technology. Charles Dickens made iconic at this time of the year the idea of a personally alarming future arising from the ethical consequences of callous business decisions made in our present. Pope Francis has — one suspects deliberately, again given the time of the year — ignited a global dialogue about the ethical dimension for business in our society.
The business component is relevant here, in many ways. Businesses are how technologies are advanced and deployed. There is thus a natural, practical intersection between the business and ethical dimensions of planning for the impacts of new technologies. In both cases it is preferable to start thinking about future consequences now rather than solely in an ex post facto reaction to a future that “has already happened.”
When it comes to making plans for dealing with what might yet happen, in the Wall Street Journal two decades ago the legendary management guru Peter Drucker offered advice for business leaders that is relevant to all of us.
- “Uncertainty — in the economy, society, politics — has become so great as to render futile, if not counterproductive, the kind of planning most companies still practice: forecasting based on probabilities.”
Instead Drucker advised that we think in terms of asking “what has already happened that will create the future?”
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. <>