Progress vs. Ethics

Humans have an innate drive to create, to use their hands, and to bring new ideas to fruition. In the past, this desire was easily satisfied through craft: carpentry, knitting, painting, and novels. Industrialism has reduced the demand for handcrafted products, and the advance of technology has changed the avenues for satisfying the human initiative to create.

185 years ago, humanity was introduced to a creation that forever changed the trajectory of humankind. Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine set forth a new mental model, and new understanding of what could be possible. 100 years later, in 1936, Alan Turing proposal a simple device that capable of computing anything that is computable. By the 1990’s, Turing’s Universal Computing Machine had evolved into the personal computer, which was small enough for a consumer to store on a desk. By the early 2000’s, the computer had shrunk down to a briefcase-sized, and then handheld device.

Since the advent of the smartphone, technological devices have grown exponentially in power, storage capacity, clarity, and capability while dramatically shrinking in size. Each year, a new and better version is released, offering higher resolution, more storage than you’ll ever use, and an ever-present status symbol. Along with the development of smartphones, we’ve been introduced to wearable body-tracking devices, digital personal assistants, drones, and GPS-tracking tools.

While I am a huge proponent of innovation and progress, I often wonder if we’re proceeding too quickly with the introduction of new technologies, failing to consider the long-term consequences. Sometimes, I can’t help but fear that we are willingly exchanging intimate details of our lives in exchange for convenience, entertainment, and pleasure.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

–Proverb

Though created with the best of intentions, innovations often take on lives of their own, independent of the inventor’s wishes and plans. As the technology advances, each origami creation takes on a more and more complex shape. A simple mission is overshadowed by a huge profit margin. Ethics and humane consideration may fall by the wayside and higher-ups rewrite the rules and redirect the ship.

Two examples of inventors coming to detest the way in which their inventions were used are Kamram Loghman and, more famously, Albert Einstein. Loghman worked for the FBI in the 1980’s and helped develop weapons-grade pepper spray, which was used on UC Davis protestors in 2011.

Your phone tracks your GPS coordinates, call logs, software apps, and web browsing habits. Your Fitbit tracks your fitness routine, steps, and sleep habits. Your Facebook account monitors relationships, assesses emotional states, and has devise a code representing your unique face data. Your 23andMe data provides scientist with access to your DNA code—a code singularly represented by you. Your personal digital assistant is always listening for it’s cue to react, but what does it hear when you’re not directly addressing it?

There have been several modern violations—including the encrypted storage of sensitive information, emotional experiment on social media, and the first driver-less car accident—though all have been generally understated. We’re entering new territory, we tell ourselves. There will be hiccups. Progress requires forgiveness, right?

Though modern innovation is a continual work in progress, where do we draw the line between implied and explicit consent for our freely disputed to be used, and potentially against us? This brings us ethical questions surrounding the future us of previously shared data. If you were being questioned about a crime, could the authorities request your 23andMe results, or bypass HIPPA to collect blood samples from your doctor? Could insurance providers one day purchase data from Fitbit or MyFitnessPal to learn about your health habits, and thereby determine your health risk level and what they can charge?

Medical graduates adhere to the Hippocratic Oath, swearing that they will, “first do no harm.” Yet, the same cannot be said about technological innovations, even though surrounding the health field.

Electronic health records are heavily regulated, yet records are not always consistent between insurance companies, health care providers, and the third parties that operate between them. Both wrong information and a lack of information could prove lethal. The digitalization of hospitals has led to a surge in illegal cyber activity, which threatens patient privacy, the healthcare infrastructure, and the lives of patients who depend on hospital continuity.

In modern times, nearly everything is connected to the internet in one manner or another: cars, refrigerators, media devices, homes, and more. It can be easy to forget that anything connected to the internet is vulnerable to cyber-attack. There has been a rise in ransomware in recent years, evidencing that internet users need to be more vigilant regarding system updates and their own security measures.

In conjunction with internet connectedness, researchers are working to advance artificial intelligence and bring AI to the mainstream. We are currently surrounded by “weak AI”: computers that can’t think for themselves but are able to make decisions within the context of their operational environment, such as digital assistants and self-driving cars.

On the other hand, “strong AI” will be capable of decision-making and self-directed action. No one knows when the day which many dub “The Singularity” will arrive, nor what will happen. Will humanity join with machine—organic beings with digital modifications? Will the machines turn on humans in a nuclear holocaust? I think it’s important that we proceed forward with caution and intention, fully aware of both the best- and worst-case scenarios.

It is my personal belief that we must welcome innovation and the benefits it brings us with open arms. But we must also remain committed to sustainable development, considering issues of human dignity, privacy, and original intention.

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