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Rules for a new age of technology

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Without regulation, the promise of information technology may be overwhelmed by its inevitable dark side.

In early, 2018, Ibrahim Diallo, went to his office in Los Angeles. His access card denied him entry, so a guard let him in. But his access to his email and computer had also been turned off. A short time later he was given notice that he was fired. The company’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) system had terminated his contract.

It took the company three weeks to figure out what happened. It started with a human error. His former supervisor had not updated his contract in the system. The AI simply followed the rules, coldly and inhumanly.

Joan, who just turned 82, lives independently in her active living condo on the outskirts of Toronto. She’s healthy but can be prone to dizziness and risks falling. One day, she falls. In just three minutes a care worker on the premises is by her side helping her get up, just as her son Rob calls her to check in.

Her fall was noted by a sensor that detects her movements and knows her typical daily patterns. The sensor connects via the internet to an AI platform in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It does not use cameras or microphones, just movement sensors. When it noted the fall, the AI called her son to notify him and alerted the care worker on his smartphone. This technology was invented in Halifax where HomeExcept is headquartered.

All technologies are a double-edged sword and always have been. In the Bronze Age, an ax could help feed the family and provide protection for the group. Or it could be used for murder and mayhem.

Today a smartphone can be used to run a store and monitor blood pressure. Social media apps like Facebook can be used to fund good causes, or rally a mob and storm a government building. They can help save lives, or ruin them through cyberbullying.

Our world has become what we might call “phygital,” the blending of physical and digital as information technology becomes increasingly embedded in our daily lives.

While we are a long way from the type of AI featured in Hollywood movies, it is being used in more ways every day. Then we have the Internet-of-Things (like the Nest thermostat you can control with your smartphone) that connects anything you can put on a chip to the internet. There’s robotics, drones, and biotechnology – all run by software.

As our world grows more complex and interconnected, we have to deal with issues like climate change, mass migrations of people, and automated cars. We know that technology can be used for good and bad. It’s the problem or the solution, or both at the same time.

Now is the time to consider some basic rules about how we use information technologies. Companies and governments need a framework to help ensure we don’t screw up things even more.

Here are my five basic precepts that can help humanity use information technologies better and smarter:

5 Precepts for Information Technology

  1. Dual purposes: All information technology is a double-edged sword. Even a small software application, like Twitter or Tik Tok, can be used in ways good and bad. 
  2. Unintended consequences: Neither Facebook nor Twitter’s founders could have predicted how their software would be used, but here we are. We did not know Big Data could be used to manipulate human behaviour – and election results. On the other hand, Apple didn’t know its watch would end up saving lives. 
  3. Societies and culture: All information technologies have an impact on society, from a small business to an entire country. They can lead to large behavioural and economic changes. 
  4. Species survival: Information technologies are critical for the survival of our species. With quantum computing, AI may help us to save our planet, go to Mars and extend our lifespan. But, as with numbers one and two, they can also destroy us. 
  5. Multi-dimensional: Almost all information technology is designed to work with other technologies, and within layers of systems. This means complexity. So creators of technology should think about the impact of products and services on existing systems, and even on new systems we can only glimpse over the horizon.

Now, as we shape these ideas, all we have to do is get governments and corporations on board. No problem, right?

You might also enjoy this article from our editor, David Holt on the elusiveness of motivation.

Author: Giles Crouch is a digital anthropologist who works at the intersection of humans and technology in a digital world. He is also Group Publisher for HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand for Silver Magazine.