Facebook is on the defensive after the elections, with accusations that it helped spread misinformation. For days, Mark Zuckerberg was adamant that his network had not affected the election results, calling that “a pretty crazy idea.” But after a torrent of criticism from his employees and the media – and indication that fake election news spread widely – he relented and took responsibility. He promised to improve Facebook’s detection, reporting and verification of news.
The tech industry has stepped into the field of publishing and communications without accepting the responsibility that comes with doing so. It’s not just Facebook. Twitter has allowed trolls to harass its users. The ethical codes we live by and the laws we follow are changing very slowly while technologies move too fast to care.
It isn’t greed and arrogance; more often than not, the technologies’ creators (and this probably includes Zuckerberg) don’t understand the power of their creations – and the damage they can do.
We are going to see much more of that.
Technologies in computing, medicine, sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics and genomics are advancing exponentially and are converging. This means that one industry can encroach on another and cause the type of disruption that social media did to publishing. I doubt that anyone expected that a dating site set up by a college dropout would have had the ability to change the outcome of the U.S. elections.
The technology industry is building medical devices, robots and self-driving cars from computers, sensors and artificial intelligence, or AI – the same types of technologies that Uber and Airbnb used to disrupt the taxi and hotel industries, respectively. They have taken advantage of the gaps between laws and ethics, just as Facebook and Twitter have, to build billion-dollar businesses. This is what the future holds.
But are we ready for tech companies to become dominant players in the field of medicine, as will happen when we have AI applications that can do the work of doctors? Are we prepared for the elimination of millions of taxi- and truck-driver jobs when Uber’s self-driving vehicles begin to hit the roads? And are we ready for the “Uberization” of large employment segments, as they move into what is called the gig economy, in which they hire people on demand? All of this will become a reality in the next five or 10 years.
The fact is that we are not prepared for any of it, just as we were not ready for the disruptions that social media caused. The tech industry, in particular, is happy to book the revenue it gains from other industries and to shirk responsibility for the damage it does. It is easier to pretend that the technologies do no harm than to deal with the problems they create.
Increasingly pervasive data networks and connected devices are enabling rapid communication and processing of information and ushering in unprecedented shifts – in everything from biology, energy and media to politics, food and transportation. They are redefining our future. It is imperative that we, as a society, understand technology’s impact on us and hold discussions and even heated debates about its use before that future becomes inevitable reality.
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke. He wrote this for The Washington Post.