Innovation

How emerging tech can help us avoid becoming a dystopia

In his new book The Driver in the Driverless Car, Carnegie Mellon professor Vivek Wadhwa explores the new technologies that can help us reach a better world, or destroy our current one.

Self-driving cars, drones, robots, gene editing—science fiction obsessions that have triggered many fears—have come to fruition faster than many predicted. While these emerging technologies have the potential to make our lives healthier, safer, and easier, the flip side is more grim: Eugenics, joblessness, privacy loss, and worsening economic inequality.

In the book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future, out this week, Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering and a director of research at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, explores the risks and rewards of our new technology, and how our choices will determine if our future errs on the side of Star Trek or Mad Max.

The book began as a general look at the future and what could be possible with emerging technologies. But in the last two years, "I started getting more and more worried about the downsides of technology—the industry destruction it's causing, and the risks, dangers, and policy issues," Wadhwa told TechRepublic. "I was shocked at how fast it was happening."

As evidenced by the election of US President Donald Trump, "the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening," Wadhwa said. "If we continue along the path we are on, we're going to create the dystopia of Mad Max. It's that dire."

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Many people are unaware of how rapidly technology is advancing, Wadhwa said. Take AI, which in the book, Wadhwa refers to as "both the most important breakthrough in modern computing and the most dangerous technology ever created by man."

"We need AI to make intelligent decisions for us, to manage the massive amounts of data being gathered, and to give us better health—all the good," Wadhwa said. "The bad is when you look at the latest generations of machine learning, the creators have no clue how these things are making the decisions they are making."

Privacy is another concern that many consumers are not paying enough attention to, Wadhwa said, and will soon become a thing of the past. He points to Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are constantly listening and learning about their human users, and even interacting with each other. "It isn't science fiction," Wadhwa said. "It's all happening as we speak."

Technology offers the potential to solve the greatest challenges facing humanity to give us a science fiction utopia future, with "unlimited food, energy, and education, so life is not about making money, but about knowledge, enlightenment, sharing, and reaching for the stars," Wadhwa said. "That future is as close as 30 years from now. It's within our reach and lifetimes. But the Mad Max future is coming sooner than I expected."

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Image: Pinkypills/iStockphoto

Wadhwa outlines three questions about any emerging technology to determine whether it will lead us to utopia or dystopia:

1. Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally?

When considering this question, Wadhwa points to AI physicians. Currently, the rich have better access to healthcare than the poor. With the rise of digital doctors, healthcare would be more readily available to everyone, as smartphones are. This is opposed to something like gene editing, which only the rich would have access to. "If only the rich have it, it creates dystopia," Wadhwa said. "We need to make sure we share the society we're creating."

2. What are its risks and rewards?

This question involves weighing all potential risks and rewards of a new technology, Wadhwa said. For example, consider IoT: Do the rewards of having a refrigerator that can tell what foods you need to buy outweigh the privacy risks? The same should be considered for gene editing, as mentioned above.

3. Does it promote autonomy or dependence?

Though some argue that many people are now dependent on smartphones, the fact remains that ten years ago, they did not exist, Wadhwa said, and we still have the ability to turn our phones off and go about our lives. He considers this question for self-driving cars: If these vehicles become the norm, humans likely would not be allowed to drive anymore, and would become dependent upon them for transportation. However, they would allow for autonomy as well, in terms of being able to travel anywhere for a low cost, no matter what age or disabilities a person may have. "Everyone gains autonomy from self driving cars, while we become dependent on them," Wadhwa said.

How can we avoid the path to dystopia? "By learning. By deciding. By speaking up," Wadhwa said. "Each of us has a say. Your voice is as important as my voice."

Our individual choices around technology matter, Wadhwa argues. He points to the recent controversies surrounding Uber, and how users chose to delete the app from their phones.

People working in the tech industry must consider the impact of their innovations on the world at large, Wadhwa said. "In the tech industry, we have blinders on," he said. "We have to start taking responsibility for the dystopia we're creating."

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About Alison DeNisco

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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