Blog: Four Ways Tech is Challenging Ethical Boundaries
Thought-leaders like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk predict, “Artificial Intelligence is a greater threat to humanity than climate change” and whilst this hypothesis may seem far-fetched, we are already living the early stages of this new reality. Artificial Intelligence will exceed human intelligence in a matter of decades. To be precise, it will overtake human intelligence by 2060 and will replace all human jobs by 2136. Pause and imagine a Black Mirror style future where the devices and intelligent assistants you interact with daily don’t actually need any intervention from you at all. In fact, they are smarter than you and they can do your job better than you can. Siri and Alexa challenge you on your choices and decision-making through smart ‘suggestions,’ because they can already predict the outcome and they’re smart enough to predict whether it will be positive or negative. AI is already writing short stories without any human intervention. Intelligent machines are making decisions based on vast amounts of data-sets that are automatically fed to them via the mobile and wearable devices we interact with every single day. Tim Cook recently stated that Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind will be healthcare, and when you consider technology like Apple Watch and the Health app, deeper integration with public and private health services could produce life-changing results. We train machines with vast amounts of data all the time, at increasing speed and complexity, helping advance the quality of the algorithms that exist all around us and reducing algorithmic bias. But these exciting technological innovations do not come without threat. We will soon reach a new frontier that will force us to question, “who is really in control — human or machine?” Humans are not all innately good, and some will find dark and dangerous ways to manipulate new technologies. In the coming years, the tech sector will be challenged and scrutinised from an ethical perspective more than ever before and there will be public discourse about why some of these technologies exist and whether they should exist at all.
Devices that become an extension of ourselves, will also increase our dependence and reliability on them. A recent study showed that over 90% of US millennials and Gen Zers take their phone to the bathroom with them. A smartphone and/or wearable device is more a part of our body than ever before, especially as the volume of applications for these devices rises. A favourite example is the man who accepted a delivery package remotely by activating his at-home security system, intercom, camera and Tesla, all from his mobile phone. In years to come, we will wear our devices in new capacities and move towards a world of implants and hyper-connectedness. If being unplugged causes #FOMO and anxiety, but being constantly connected causes feelings of isolation and loneliness, then what does being implanted look like? Some countries are already testing RFID implants, which can replace things like public transport cards, payment cards and locking mechanisms. But what about implants that can monitor glucose, stimulate nerves and read vital signs? Functions like GPS tracking in implants could help patients with dementia (The Atlantic), but also pose issues of safety if abused. Consent and information security will be paramount, as data sensitivity increases, so does vulnerability.
Genome-editing and bio-hacking have given us a God-like power over the future of the human race. Systems like CRISPR-Cas9 allow scientisits to edit the genomes of organisms, including animals and humans. Whilst this innovation could help in the treatment and prevention of illness and disease, it also poses ethical issues of whether we should edit people’s height, race or intelligence. Natural selection and survival of the fittest then become obsolete theories of the past, in a world where super-humans can be bred like soldiers for war. Bio-hacking is a phenomenon born in silicon-valley for rich, predominantly male techies who want to be biologically superior. Think: superior immune system, ripped body, higher IQ, enhanced sex drive and maximum productivity. The end goal? Longer life-span. The logic behind this phenomenon is that if machines can be hacked and fixed or enhanced, why can’t humans? There are wellness centres, which offer treatments like cryotherapy, virtual float tanks, neurofeedback and cold high-intensity interval training. Some bio-hackers are even micro-dosing with drugs like LSD, to tap into unexplored parts of their brain that help them express emotion, imagination and creativity. With access to these technologies and services limited to the ultra-wealthy, it raises a broader issue of biological inequality.
Human creativity will find new ways to manipulate media and social technologies in dark and destructive ways. Live video streaming has risen in popularity on social platforms, with limited intervention of an algorithm or bot acting in real-time (platforms are not quite that advanced yet). And people have taken advantage of this fact, sharing everything from beheadings, suicides, animal abuse, derogatory sexual content and more. The world then becomes graphically uncensored, which presents new challenges from a mental health perspective and puts those most vulnerable at risk. Another disturbing example of media abuse is “Deepfakes” where people have superimposed celebrity heads and faces on the bodies of porn stars, with such precision, it’s nearly impossible to tell if it’s authentic. This has now spread to politics, which presents grave new threats related to elections, war, terrorism and trade. A doctored video of Nancy Pelosi was published on Facebook, in which she appeared to be drunkenly slurring her speech. Facebook and Twitter refused to take it down because they are still defining their stance on what constitutes ‘prohibited content.’ The shared theme in these phenomoenons and perhaps the greatest threat is not being able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. Media Literacy has risen to prominence in the past few years, with many non-profits attempting to tackle this complex topic, starting in education. This will continue and extend to adults, as vast amounts of content and irresponsible news outlets make it even more challenging to fact-check and decipher what is genuine.
Augmented and virtual reality will present new ethical challenges that we can only begin to conceive. Celebrities like Paris Hilton are already exploring ways to artificially exist forever in 3D holographic form. And as early as 2012, the music industry was already piloting holograms, with Tupac’s hologram performing alongside Snoop Dogg at Coachella festival. As machine learning becomes more intelligent, these celebrity holograms will become even more authentic, capable of human-like emotions, thoughts and feelings. Human holograms will also become a product or service we can buy, giving us access to friends, family members and influential people who are deceased in the real world but alive in the digital world. Virtual worlds similar to those we interact with during gaming experiences, will become increasingly realistic and immersive. We will have the opportunity to experience things that may excite us, provoke us or traumatise us. Arts and Culture exhibitions are already testing ways to convert real-world environments into virtual ones, giving people the opportunity to transport themselves to places like the Mexican border and experience what it’s like to be a migrant. This could be applied to everything from rainforests, deserts, coral reefs and Rocky Mountains, to war zones, hurricanes, refugee camps and slums. We will be tested when it comes to putting limits on access to these experiences, duration, multi-use, before and after care, especially as they become more advanced and our brains are not evolving fast enough to process and cope.
We have pushed the boundaries of science and technology, creating things that can greatly enhance the human race and the planet we live on. And whilst humans are incredibly creative, they are not all creating for good. The more advanced intelligent machines become, the greater the risk to mankind. We must be prepared to not only scrutinise the ethics of some of these innovations, but help people better prepare to live with them and to cope with any misuse.