Recently, one evening, I was sitting at home scrolling through my Twitter feed, which – given that I am a philosopher studying artificial intelligence (AI) and data – is always filled with information on new technological developments. After a while, I started having a stomach ache. It’s the kind of sign that tells you that you’re really not not having a good time. But why did I feel this? I was not, however, reading information related to politics, the climate crisis or the pandemic – the usual sources of anxiety. I took a few minutes to analyze the situation. What was I looking at?
I had just blinked at the graphical poverty of the game’s latest presentation Horizon Worlds VR of Meta. This featured the avatar of Mark Zuckerberg, with lifeless eyes, on a visual background that a user on Twitter had just compared to the “painted walls of an abandoned nursery”. I heaved a silent sigh at the announcement of Ring Nation, an Amazon-produced TV show featuring “lightweight, viral content” drawn from Ring’s surveillance empire. I had clenched my jaw at a screenshot of Stable Diffusion’s text-to-image model featuring AI-designed artwork mimicking the style of dozens of unpaid human artists whose work had been added into the database used to train the model. A job that was ground up by the AI before being spat out.
I have experienced this feeling before and I know what it is called. It was resignation. It’s the feeling of being stuck in a place you don’t want to be but can’t leave. I had chosen to study technology precisely to avoid this kind of feeling. How ironic! Technology was my paradise. Naturally, I poured out my unease through a series of tweets:
I had just hit a nerve. As my notifications began to explode from the thousands of replies and retweets, the initial reward of dopamine-delivered virality gave way to an even deeper sadness. Many people felt the same knot in their stomach as I did. However, one feels a certain catharsis in reading so many other people express themselves on the subject.
Technological innovation has radically changed its pattern
Something is missing in our lives and in our technologies. This absence fuels a growing unease expressed by people working in or studying technology. This is what motivates the new generation of doctoral and post-doctoral researchers with whom I work at the University of Edinburgh. Whether they come from the technical arts, sciences or humanistic disciplines, together they try to understand what is not working in our technological ecosystem and how we can fix it. To do this, we need to understand how and why the priorities of this ecosystem have evolved.
In the past, the goal of developing consumer technology was quite simple: to design and build something of value for people and give them a reason to buy it. This new fridge is brilliant: it saves me money on my energy bills and makes some pretty cool ice cubes. So I buy it. It is done. This Roomba vacuum promises to suck up my cat’s hair from under my sofa while I take a nap. It’s sold! But this vision of technology is increasingly obsolete. Today, a refrigerator should not only keep your food cool. Current models feature cameras and sensors that can monitor what I eat and how I eat it, while the Roomba vacuum can communicate with Amazon and send a detailed map of my home to the US company.
The problem goes far beyond the obvious privacy risks. This is a radical change in the whole model of innovation and the incentives that flow from it. Why settle for a single profitable transaction for the company when they can design a product that will extract a stream of monetizable data from each buyer and bring them revenue for several years? Once the company has captured this data stream, it will protect it, even at the expense of the customer. After all, if a company buys enough of the market, it can afford to take on the anger and frustration of its customers. Ask Mark Zuckerberg.
We are the product and not the beneficiary of technologies
This shift hasn’t just been driven by consumer technology platforms and social media. The big agri-technical brand John Deere, for example, once adored by its customers, is now fighting a “right to repair” movement led by farmers furious at being banned from repairing their own machines for fear of disrupt software that sends valuable data about farmers’ land and crops to its maker. As more than one comment on my Twitter feed has pointed out, today in technology we are the product, not the primary beneficiary. The mechanical devices that once made up the product are increasingly turning into mere intermediaries.
There is also a change in the recipients of current technological innovations. Following my thread, several people expressed various opinions on the question of the booming market of technologies intended for “geeks” and “nerds” such as the Raspberry Pi, open source software or programmable robots. While many of these tools are relevant to those who have the time, the skills and interest to use them make them appeal to a narrow audience. The pleasure of seeing real innovation in biomedical technology, such as messenger RNA vaccines, is also dampened when one sees that the benefits are concentrated in the wealthiest countries, i.e. those who are already better off with technology.
Of course, new technologies remain a source of joy and excitement in many places that historically have not had a fair share of comfort. However, innovation once promised us much more than new devices and applications. Engineering and Invention used to be professions focused primarily on creating more viable infrastructure rather than production disposable items.
Technology must bring benefits to humans
Vital technologies such as roads, power grids, sewers and mass transit systems were once a central part of the engineering enterprise in the United States. Today, we treat them like burdens on taxpayers and instead our best minds and resources are channeled into data-hungry consumer devices and apps. If the United States is any indicator of the trajectory of global technological development then serious problems await us all because we have clearly lost track.
The fact is that technological culture no longer has the visible goal of pushing the frontiers of human innovation. An innovation that serves us all. Even the conquest of space has lost its humanistic vision. The prospect today is luxury space tourism and billionaires selling gullible investors Mars escape fantasies. With eight billion people on the precipice of global environmental destruction, we cannot afford to head into a world where the main mission of new technologies seems to be to “take the money and run away”.
If we continue to turn away from the benefits of technology for humans, we risk fueling a feedback loop that exhausts our collective will to reinvest in their development. The danger is not only that today’s technology fails to meet our most pressing civilizational needs, but also that technologists’ apparent loss of interest in human innovation is draining our collective faith in our own powers. of invention.
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When it remains true to its deepest roots, technology is always driven by a moral impulse: to build places, tools and techniques that can help humans not only survive but also thrive together. Of course, this impulse is easily associated with others or set aside by them: the impulses of domination, extermination, impoverishment, surveillance and control.
However, these darker motivations are not central to our technological capacity as a species. We cannot let them define the modern technological order because if technology loses its association with shared joy and comfort, we risk becoming distracted from one of the most fundamental ways of caring for the world and others.
Tribune by Shannon Vallor published in October 2022, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia. Shannon Vallor is Baillie Gifford Chair in Data Ethics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Center for Technomoral Futures at the Edinburgh Futures Institute.
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