The Good and Evil of Technology

A good deal of modern political and economic discourse centers on the potential impacts of technology on society. How will AI, Automation, Genetic Manipulation impact us? How are older technologies like fossil fuels, guns and others already impacting us? These are deep and serious questions. A great example is this thread on Hackernews in response to EthicalOS’s launch (which I wrote about a few months ago).

The thread covers a wide range of ethical dilemmas from responsibility for weapons of mass destruction to the responsibility for not developing things which could help large parts of humanity.

Ultimately what often gets lost is that it is not technology per-se that is good or evil (and whether a technology can be deemed ‘ethical’ is an even more gnarly problem), but the way it is applied and used.

Science, Technology, Products, and Usage

An important distinction in any such debate is being specific about what we are talking about when we talk about “Technology”:

  1. Science: science aims at discovering the fundamental properties of the Universe. For example, the fact that water is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen or how fast light travels. The ultimate utility of a scientific discovery may not become clear for many years.
  2. Technology: is a term typically used to describe the harnessing of science to designing processes or artifacts that do things and could be repeated in some way. Examples include computation, the process for the manufacture of aluminum or the production of sulphuric acid by John Roebuck’s lead chamber process. Technology is generally widely applicable and useful in many ways. As with science, of these uses many may not be in any way foreseen when the technology is first created.
  3. Products: the next step beyond technology is the design and manufacture of products which use the technology for a specific purpose. For example, the use of nuclear fission principles to create atomic bombs ready to be dropped on an enemy.
  4. Usage: the actual usage of these products of science and technology in practice, be this operating an airline which relies on planes built from aluminum to actually dropping a bomb.

In this progression, scientific discoveries are arguably things which exist in the Universe already and are waiting to be discovered. As we progress, more and more human agency comes into play in terms of shaping the usage of the original science into things that have an effect on the world when used.

Where do Ethics come in?

It would be hard to argue a scientific fact is ethical or unethical. Moving up the scale of human agency it is clearly the case that the use of certain technologies/products has been considered highly unethical at times. The operation of Nazi Germany’s Death Camps in world-war two are the most extreme example, but there are many others such as the negligence of Union Carbide prior to the Bhopal chemical disaster.

It can also be the not doing that is unethical in many eyes. Our understanding of climate change, for example, is now very well-founded in science as is its likely impact on large swathes of the human population. By choosing not to act, we are arguably needlessly endangering these groups.

Guns don’t kill people, People kill People?

One reading of this set of distinctions is that it is in the usage of a technology that the ethical risks lie, not in their invention or manufacture. Isn’t this like the popular trope of “Guns don’t kill people, People kill People” which is often used to argue against the adoption of tighter gun controls in the United States?

Yes, but no…

Yes, if an individual kills another using a gun with malicious intent, the violent individual clearly bears responsibility for their actions. It is hard to argue that the gun itself and the inventor of guns or gunpowder are responsible.

However, it is also clearly the case that the general availability of guns in the United States is a very large contributor to the number of gun deaths in the country. Not only does this allow humans to act on impulse in ways they would not where a weapon not available it also leads to many tragic accidents of accidental gun use. Tragic incidents of young children accidentally killing a sibling, friend or family member occur with heart-wrenching regularity.

The argument that guns themselves and their availability play no role in the level of gun violence and that gun manufacturers or lobbyists have no ethical responsibility in this is highly spurious. Further, these companies profit from heavily from gun sales (which are often reinforced by acts of violence being publicized).

Saying there is no responsibility is akin to saying that companies selling nerve toxins to the general public which could be pleasurable for 90% of the population but fatal to 10% would not bear some responsibility for resulting accidental deaths.

In other words, the availability and distribution of potentially harmful technologies is as an ethical issue as well as their actual usage.

Ethics v’s Technology v’s Time

The perceived right and wrong of particular technology use depends strongly on society. The ethical considerations typically fall into a variety of categories:

  • Individual: do certain uses of a technology violate or threaten the rights of other individuals in the society (either groups or individuals)?
  • Collective: do certain uses of a technology violate or threaten the collective environment of the society (for example by making it less safe, toxic etc.)?
  • Cultural/Religious: do certain uses of technologies violate or threaten societal norms in some way?

Hence a technology could very easily be acceptable in one society and unacceptable in another (abortion or the usage of recreational drugs are obvious examples here even just across US states).

These norms also change. Slavery has been common in many societies throughout history but it is clearly considered unethical in almost all of today’s societies. Much of this change was initiated in the middle ages with the rise of a strong ethic around the rights of the individual but it took much longer for these ideas to take hold nearly everywhere. The long-lasting effects are still evident in our society today. Clearly, this is a positive change, but it is also a warning that even this seemingly positive changes could be undone again in the future.

Separating concerns

The next 20-30 years will likely see the introduction of a tremendous amount of new technology. Much of this will surpass human abilities in new areas such as cognition and physical ability, thereby unleashing far-reaching effects on the economy. The ability to modify the human body (and mind) will likely also be a huge factor.

Ethical debates will explode. The following considerations will be key:

  • What do we invest in? The more society prioritizes investment in technologies of general benefit the better, sharing the gains from technology will be crucial.
  • Availability matters as much as usage: in other words it is not just the specific usage of a technology (a gun to kill someone) but also its general availability that matters (many guns make an environment less safe, widely available CPR devices at low cost make it safer, who gets certain types of treatment?).
  • Cost and externalities matter: disasters like Bhopal or climate change pass the cost of a technology onto society whilst profits are kept by a few (this is an example of what Nassem Nicolas Taleb calls passing on tail risk), what balance can be struck here?

Technology will be critical for human development from here on outward (as it already has been). How we think about its deployment and use, as well as how it interacts with our evolving ethical stance, will have a huge impact on how pleasant the journey is!

To a large extent our societies will end up being defined by the technologies they do and don’t allow. Would you rather live in society A which bans robotic workers, but also bans human genetic body modification? Or society B which allows robot work but also all manner of types of body modification?

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