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Technology faces ethical dilemma with change

Peruse a tech magazine or browse Netflix for a new sci-fi series, and you’ll see a slew of new inventions, discoveries and technologies being theorized, discussed, developed and incorporated into our world. Some might sound fairly harmless or convenient, like Facebook’s new advertisement-sorting algorithm based on user preferences. Others, like quantum entanglement and metamaterials, can sound confusing or obscure. Still others, like cybernetic medical enhancements or genetic modification, might sound invasive, dangerous or downright frightening.

Scientists, technology developers and the entire world of business are asking a new set of questions concerning how far humans should take technology and how far humans should let technology take us. Larry Bland, John Brown University chair of the division of Engineering and Construction Management and Professor of Engineering, thinks it’s wise to look at history in order to understand how to best approach the future.

“I build almost all my feelings toward the future from what I’ve seen over a 40-year career,” Bland said. Bland recalls a time when experts predicted light-based holographic systems would replace silicon-based computers. “Things got smaller and faster, and we thought, ‘physics has to stop somewhere.’ But we still seem to figure out new ways to get faster.”

What Bland describes is known in the computer theory world as Moore’s law, which states that for every two years, the density of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles. In this way, the slimming flash drives we use today far exceed the storage capacities of the bulky hard drives we used ten years ago.

Chris McCoy, Chief Information Officer at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has spent almost thirty years teaching technology and observing the same exponential effect. McCoy recalls data transfer rates at the start of his career. “If we wanted to download a two-megabyte file, I might start the transaction before I walked out of work to go home, and when it finished, I was walking in the next morning,” McCoy said. “Now we download that same file, or even a high definition movie, in the blink of an eye.”

As technology accelerates our ability to process materials, understand information and automate labor, questions are raised about how this progression will impact the economy. A 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School estimated that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades. Another study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that, by 2025, robots could jeopardize between 40 million and 75 million jobs worldwide.

Technology spans both the public and personal lives of people ranging from children to business executives. “The other day, I was teaching my students about the impacts of technology on the workforce and society,” McCoy said. “There’s a new psychological condition noticed amongst children. They feel intense sadness when they recognize their parents are distracted with all kinds of gadgets and aren’t paying attention. Technology is having an adverse impact on the family in this way.”

Bland also sees social media as a source of the breakdown in social interactions in society and the family. “The pot-bellied stove gave a different family dynamic than the dynamic we see today,” Bland said. “Do we want to go back to the pot-bellied stove? No. But do we want some of the conversation and relationships and long-term development that we had around it? I think so. But, we lost something in the process of technology.”

However, McCoy observes many changes in the culture that suggest new social connections formed, especially among college students. “If you go back 10 to 15 years, when a student graduated from high school to university, they encountered technology beyond anything they’d ever seen,” McCoy said. “They were mesmerized, and they were hungry for more. Then, students started walking in with technology equivalent to what was on campus. Now, students bring in technology that far exceeds what we can provide, and they’re using it to connect with each other and to engage with the world, cell phones, laptops, virtual reality headsets and everyday devices.”

Bland acknowledges the human drive toward convenience and connectivity, but also recognizes the limiting factors to technology. “When I take technology in the dynamic of politics, society, litigation, it’s all got to fit together in some way,” Bland said. “We have made huge strides forward in many ways. It’s going to continue, but are our dreams going to stay socially acceptable when they turn themselves into reality? Reality has unintended consequences, and we begin to say, ‘I don’t like that.’”

Within the past several years, the Supreme Court has faced controversies that have stalled the progress of technology: issues slowing the development of self-driving cars, confining the airspace in which drones are allowed to fly or halting experimentation with CRISPR technology on humans, for example. In addition, the federal budget the United States allocates to NASA has steadily dropped since the Apollo program, and in 2012 it was estimated at 0.48 percent of the federal budget. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, well-known American Astrophysicist, responded by suggesting that by doubling NASA’s budget, the U.S. economy would experience a marked improvement.

Visionaries like Neil deGrasse Tyson, futurist Ray Kurzweil, and business magnate Elon Musk all dream of a utopia in which technology ushers in a new age of humanity. Conversation over matters such as transhumanism and our eventual ability to become immortal is normal for these men.

Bland urges caution, citing our natural human limitations and our roles in a universe not our own. “If man wants to think he’s God, he’s made a mistake,” Bland stated. “And God will never make the mistake of thinking He’s human. There are people who believe that reason, knowledge, science, triumphs over a God. But I believe God is involved, so there are things I need to do toward honoring him.”

Both Bland and McCoy cautiously view technology as a tool to be used with wisdom. “I think there is an imperative for us. You can’t dismiss ethical questions in either technological or non-technological dimensions of life,” McCoy said. “Technology is a tool, an accelerator. If you take technology and apply it to the good thing, you do the bad thing more and faster. If you take technology and apply it to the bad thing, you make that more and faster. What’s good and what’s bad is often where we get stuck. That’s the human condition. We saw that 2000 years ago, and we see it today.”

NOAH FRANZ – Lifestyles Editor