Tomorrow’s technology innovations—no matter how beneficial—will inevitably bring unintended consequences. The tension between technology as an accelerator and a barrier to progress is discernible in many of the emerging technologies we celebrate. This article by Suzanne Taylor, Ph. D., vice president innovation and emerging technologies at Unisys explores some of the related ethical and social challenges.
Are we ready for the future of tech—ethically and socially? History says we might not be.
In the past, we have seen the exciting promise of emerging technologies tempt leaders to overlook or underestimate innovations’ unanticipated ill effects. After all, centuries after technological innovations sparked the Industrial Revolution and delivered massive material progress, its worst features still linger: child labor, starvation, low wages and dangerous work conditions.
Today, we are in a similar position of being surrounded by astonishing technology advances. Technology leaders need to devote serious attention to those unintentional—but probably inevitable—consequences.
The tension between technology as an accelerator of progress and a barrier to progress is discernible in many of the emerging technologies we celebrate today, including fifth-generation wireless technology (5G), satellite communications (satcom), the Internet of Things (IoT) and Web 3.0. In this article, we explore some of the ethical and social challenges related to these innovative technologies.
5G: the New Digital Highway
Considered to be the new highway for data, information and knowledge, 5G’s transformative prospects are massive. Its providers tout its positive impact on the user experience, potential for new service and greater speed and dependability while predicting that every industry will profit by its deployment.
They say 5G could improve healthcare by enabling greater use of telemedicine, health monitoring and remote surgery. Plus, providers are predicting 5G could revolutionize agriculture with smart farming capabilities, make manufacturing safer and more efficient as well as improve transportation with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. The opportunities appear endless amid 5G’s emergence.
But consider the already disturbing state of today’s digital divide—the gap between individuals or societies with easy access to the internet and digital devices and those without. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations estimated 3.7 billion people—almost half the world population—had no internet access. That number included 21 million people in the U.S.
It's hard to imagine that populations still without internet access today will be able to obtain 5G. The divide will widen with the better off gaining ever greater advantages of bandwidth, data, information and knowledge.
Satcom may be one way to narrow the digital divide. By providing internet access anywhere, including areas lacking fiber optic cable, it is a viable means to increase broadband service.
Headlines in February 2022 catapulted the powerful advances in satcom when the innovative Starlink satcom systems were delivered to embattled Ukraine. The country’s aging satcom ground infrastructure had been knocked offline, severely damaging the country’s national defense operations at a pivotal juncture and leaving great swathes of Europe without internet. The Starlink system is significantly more cybersecure than earlier generations, and it is also more affordable and more enabling of mobile communications to provide greater global connectivity.
However, satcom comes with a significant risk, as the ongoing Ukrainian invasion reveals, because satcom is vulnerable to damage to the downlink infrastructure— deliberate or accidental. Where hostilities reign around the world with their populations desperately in need of internet access, they are most likely to be denied it by hostile forces.
Moral and ethical concerns arise when satcom is used to deliver drone strikes during warfare. It allows governments to use lethal force without endangering troops and is highly targeted and accurate. However, many agree drone strikes often succeed at the collateral cost of the lives of innocents.
IoT: The Internet of (Every)Thing
IoT is already firmly embedded in the international economy and is even consumed avidly by those who may be unaware of the term IoT. This technology includes sensors used in agriculture to monitor soil, fertilizer, feed and water; medical devices that notify caregivers of patients’ vital signs and drones connected to cameras surveying battlefields in advance.
With its potential to simplify and improve daily life and make industries and governments more capable, responsive, efficient and productive, the use of IoT is growing exponentially. By 2025, IoT is forecasted to generate 55% of all data.
Such a vastly interconnected environment poses obvious risks—chief among them cybersecurity and data privacy. Many early-stage consumer-oriented IoT devices are lacking in security to keep pace with today’s cybercriminals, enabling hackers to gain entry and expose sensitive data and otherwise endanger IoT users. Privacy concerns are also rising as consumers become more familiar with the risks associated with the sheer amount of data being collected and stored about them.
Concerns about security and privacy may lead consumers to be more cautious about bringing IoT into their homes, prompting nations, states and corporations to create barriers to the free exchange of data, which could reduce the effectiveness of IoT technologies.
Web 3.0: the Decentralized Web
Web 3.0, also known as the decentralized web, is the next generation of the internet. Instead of being controlled by multinational corporations, the internet will be “owned” by the individuals who use it, shifting power from centralized authorities to individual users.
Instead of data being contained on centralized servers, individuals will retain control of their own data. By using distributed ledgers like blockchain to store proof of transactions from millions of computers around the world, Web 3.0 will enable individual-to-individual transactions without third-party involvement. It is hard to overstate the revolutionary nature of the change Web 3.0 portends.
But for all Web.30’s promise and benefits, the question must be asked: How well are we as technology leaders prepared for this digital free-for-all? Web 2.0 is already rife with abusive users, such as terrorists, spammers and pornographers. How will the darker aspects of humanity be affected by the absence of centralized authority with the ability to moderate content?
Web 3.0 will make censorship and conflict resolution much harder. With no centralized authority, there will be no recourse for false or damaging social statements. With the autonomy of completely free trade among individuals, there will be limited recourse for false advertising of goods or other fraudulent exchanges.
Nor is the ability for users to own their content an unmitigated benefit. Today, massive amounts of content are free to be accessed, read, copied and understood to benefit humankind’s store of learning and ability to understand one another. But Web 3.0 poses the obvious temptation for content producers to monetize their content and the more valuable the content, the higher the price—once again diminishing opportunity for those on the wrong side of the digital gap.
Balancing Innovation, Ethics
Those of us who develop and commercialize these innovations have a dual responsibility. We need to anticipate and guard against unintended consequences, recognize them as they appear and be in the vanguard of mitigating their ill effects. At the same time, we must continue innovating, always bearing in mind the astonishing ways tech has improved lives and economies worldwide.
As we move to a world where technology is more embedded in our lives, our livelihoods and even our bodies, we must intensify our efforts and capabilities to foresee how malefactors could penetrate our innovations and cause horrific kinds of damage and chaos—more horrific because of the tech’s growing ubiquity and interconnectedness.
When our innovations lead to greater digital dependency, we need to anticipate potential results and act to mitigate them. For example, the extensively automated jumbo jets that almost fly themselves could be disastrous if a pilot has to hand-fly the plane in an emergency. The pilot might not have a lot of hand-flying experience, or their skills have declined since becoming used to automated flying.
We need to emphasize the potential, no matter how small the likelihood, given the lives at stake and encourage mitigation efforts. That obligation extends to technology innovations whose failure endangers lives.
We must champion, not resist, regulations that protect against technology misuse. As for making wise choices about monetizing innovations, we must constantly balance the fact that many costly and life-saving inventions would never have occurred without the prospect of eventual reward against our social and ethical obligations.
It is an exciting time for technology leaders in every industry around the world as the amazing advances they create and champion are bound to make the world a better place in many ways. However, it remains incumbent on them to keep in mind history’s lessons and guard carefully against any harmful, unintended consequences of their innovations.