Chapter 4: How Will Technology Affect Society in the Future?
Chapter 4 Preface
The advent of the twenty-first century has given rise to various forecasts of technological evolution. Innovations in genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology—a field of science that strives to control individual atoms and molecules to create computer chips and other extremely small devices— have spawned questions surrounding the ethics and potential consequences of society’s increasing dependence on technology.
Many argue that technological advances in robotics will threaten the future of humans by creating a superior form of life that is able to self-replicate. Hans Moravec, a leading robotics researcher, argues that robots created with the ability to reproduce will also be endowed with survival instincts that may jeopardize the human race. In his book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, he writes, “Robotic industries would compete vigorously among themselves for matter, energy, and space, incidentally driving their price beyond human reach. Unable to afford the necessities of life, biological humans would be squeezed out of existence.” Moravec and others contend that by creating a form of life more intelligent and physically superior to humans, people risk the endangerment and extinction they have inflicted on countless species.
Others maintain that because robots are not alive, do not have biological needs and desires, and have no need to compete, their existence will not threaten humans. Chris Malcolm, a...
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The Future of Technology Can Be Predicted
No one knows precisely what life will be like in 2020, but if we know the development rates of different technologies, we can anticipate many of the things that will be possible and when they are likely to happen. Considering the interactions between technology and society, we can also foresee many potential consequences on business and social life. Such scenarios allow us to plan with a much better idea of how life might look, realizing that many things will still turn out differently in spite of our best efforts.
Computer-based technology will change the most. By 2020, we will share our planet with synthetic intelligent lifeforms; they may even have legal rights. Overall, they will catch up with human intelligence before 2020, though there will still be a few things that only people can do. Most new knowledge will be developed by synthetic intelligence; we won’t understand some of it, even as we accept the benefits. As machines gradually take over both mental and physical work, we will shift to a “care economy,” where people gradually concentrate more on the human side of activity. Partnership between man and machine will make our work more productive and our play more enjoyable. Even entertainment will be within the machine domain, with today’s crude computer game heroes and heroines evolving into a whole range of entertainers, even chat-show hosts. It is even possible that some of our friends may be synthetic, and, since many of our...
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The Future of Technology Cannot Be Predicted
Y2K came and went, with various predicted cataclysms nowhere to be found. Did clever human intervention—at a cost of more than $500 billion—change the predicted future by fixing the glitch ahead of time? Or were the forecasts of disaster simply overstated?
Modern society attempts to predict all manner of future events, from the course of hurricanes to oil prices to asteroid impacts—in order better to prepare for them. Advances in science and technology—especially the ability of computers to rapidly process massive amounts of data using sophisticated mathematical models—underlie these efforts to foretell the future. But, in a complex world, accurate predictions are often surprisingly hard to come by. Just prior to Y2K, for example, western Europe was ravaged by a storm that took weather forecasters by surprise, and caught tens of millions of people unprepared.
Prediction is central to the scientific method. Many scientific hypotheses are in fact predictions that can be tested under controlled experimental conditions. For example, a biologist might hypothesize that a certain gene controls appetite in rats. The biologist can test this idea by removing or altering this gene in laboratory rats, and seeing if the eating behavior changes. Once the prediction is confirmed, it can be applied to real-world problems, perhaps, for example, gene therapy for appetite suppression in humans.
But predictions about the real world are...
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Technology May Threaten Society
Science fiction has portrayed machines capable of thinking and acting for themselves with a mixture of anticipation and dread, but what was once the realm of fiction has now become the subject of serious debate for researchers and writers.
Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows HAL, the computer aboard a mission to Jupiter, deciding (itself ) to do away with its human copilots. Sci-fi blockbusters such as The Terminator and The Matrix have continued the catastrophic theme portraying the dawn of artificial intelligence as a disaster for humankind.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov anticipated a potential menace. He speculated that humans would have to give intelligent machines fundamental rules in order to protect themselves.
• A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. • A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Later Asimov added a further rule to combat a more sinister prospect: “A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
From Science Fiction to Reality
Will machines ever develop intelligence on a level that could challenge humans?...
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Technology Will Not Threaten Society
There is a currently popular argument that within a few to several decades robots (or some other kind of intelligent machine) will have become so much more intelligent than us that they will take over the world. This argument is seriously put forward by knowledgeable scientists working in appropriate disciplines. They take different attitudes to this future. For example, Professor Moravec (a roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University, US) thinks this will be good, because we will be handing the torch of future civilisation over to our “children”. Professor Warwick (a roboticist from Reading University, UK) thinks they may snatch the world from us before we are willing to hand it over. Professor de Garis (head of the Artificial Brain Project of Starlab, Belgium) thinks there will be a war between those who are on the side of the robots and those who are against them. Kurzweil (developer of some of the world’s most advanced speech synthesisers and recognisers) thinks that we can participate in this superintelligence by having microscopic nanocomputers link themselves into our brains. What they all do agree about is the inevitability of some kind of superintelligent machine soon becoming vastly more intelligent than us.
Like all the best conjuring tricks, the argument depends on distracting you with astonishing facts while some assumptions sneak past.
The astonishing facts are a generalisation of...
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Technology May Affect Human Nature
You know things, you child of the 21st century. You may not stop to think about it, but you know stuff to get along that your hallowed progenitors could never have dreamed of. You know how to delete. You can pull down a menu. You know how to change the channel on your TV without getting out of your overstuffed chair, a luxury your grandparents did not enjoy. You know—or should know— how to keep your kid from downloading porn on the Internet. You even know the word download. You know other words too. Scary words. Ebola, mad cow, West Nile virus. At the very mention of these words, your mind knows to give you the creeps.
As always, knowledge is power. What you know gets you through your day. Protects your family. Keeps them safe.
And what you need to know has changed—a lot. Twenty years ago, you took notes with a pen, not a pointer pushed across the face of a personal digital assistant. Twenty years ago you still thought a mouse was just a rodent. Had some prescient soul sidled up to you on the street in 1980 and said, “Listen, buddy, soon you’re going to need to know how to operate a big glowing box on your desk by sliding a plastic thing around,” you would have seen him as a madman, not a prophet.
By the year 2020, you will need to know stuff you can hardly guess today. You’ve heard all this before. You’re hip to this technology thing. You know the drill: Gadgets change; you adapt to the gadgets. You learn new...
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Technology Will Not Affect Human Nature
People living at the start of the third millennium enjoy a world that would have been inconceivable to our ancestors living in the 100 millennia that our species has existed. Ignorance and myth have given way to an extraordinarily detailed understanding of life, matter and the universe. Slavery, despotism, blood feuds and patriarchy have vanished from vast expanses of the planet, driven out by unprecedented concepts of universal human rights and the rule of law. Technology has shrunk the globe and stretched our lives and our minds.
How far can this revolution in the human condition go? Will the world of 3000 be as unthinkable to us today as the world of 2000 would have been to our forebears a millennium ago? Will our descendants live in a wired Age of Aquarius? Will science explain the universe down to the last quark, extinguishing mystery and wonder? Will the Internet turn us into isolates who interact only in virtual reality, doing away with couples, families, communities, cities? Will electronic media transform the arts beyond recognition? Will they transform our minds?
Obviously it would be foolish to predict what life will be like in a thousand years. We laugh at the Victorian experts who predicted that radio and flying machines were impossible. But it is just as foolish to predict that the future will be utterly foreign—we also laugh at the postwar experts who foresaw domed cities, jet-pack commuters and nuclear vacuum cleaners. The...
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Society Must Be Restructured to Accommodate Technology
People make tools, and tools then remake social systems— that has been the case for millenniums. The heavy plow fostered the manorial system of governance in northern Europe in the 9th century, allowing for the accumulation of surplus, population growth and urbanization. The automobile gave us freedom to travel and commute, and in the process hollowed out cities and created suburbs.
How will computers remake today’s social systems? No one can say for sure. Certain major elements of change— from how schoolchildren do research for papers to how and where we spend our working hours—are already apparent, of course. But the important issue facing us is this: Do we accept the consequences passively, or try to anticipate and control them? I would go so far as to suggest that our leaders should begin to restructure social, economic and government systems to accommodate the forthcoming change.
For all of human history, society has been built predominantly on a physical foundation of tangible objects and assets. Governments drew their strength from geography: Mountains, rivers and oceans protected them and defined their reach. Businesses depended on their physical assets— factories, inventory, natural resources. Communities were clustered around churches, schools and places of public business. Factories provided places to work. Streets supported the movement of goods.
Physical infrastructure serves a second important purpose: It...
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Chapter 4 Periodical Bibliography
Chester Burger “Sooner than You Think,” Vital Speeches, September 15, 2000.
Mathew Cabot “Tomorrow’s Treatments,” Natural Science, March 2001.
Steve Case “Internet’s Reach Will Extend Our Grasp, Improve Our Lives,” USA Today, June 22, 1999.
Economist “Behold, the Emerald City,” San Diego Union- Tribune, November 28, 1999.
Peter Godwin “The Car That Can’t Crash,” New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2000.
Edward Goldsmith “The Fight Must Go On,” Ecologist, July/August 2000.
Eric Haseltine “Twenty Things That Will Be Obsolete in Twenty Years,” Discover, October 2000.
Bill Joy “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired, April 2000.
Ray Kurzweil “As Machines Become More Like People, Will People Become More Like God?” Talk, April 2001.
Michel Marriott “Toys Today, Servants Tomorrow,” New York Times, March 22, 2001.
Ryan Mathews, Jim Taylor, and Watts Wacker “The Perishability of Technology,” FirstMatter, 1999.
Neil Munro “We’re Wired, but Now What?” National Journal, January 16, 1999.
Joshua Muravchik “Machines Are (Sort of ) Predictable. Man Isn’t,” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 1999.
Charles W. Petit “Shape of Things to Come: Are You Ready for a New Sense of...
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