In The Media

Addressing Technological Disruption

By Wesley Finck • Schulich Leader at University of New Brunswick
Spring 2019
Category: 

We live in an amazing world – that truly is an understatement. If we look at the big picture of human history, it’s quite spectacular to be alive right now and to experience the accumulation of humanity’s ingenious inventions in our everyday lives – from medicine to democracy to transportation to electricity.

Take, for instance, this article you are reading. How is it that the information I entered into my computer found its way to your computer? How is it that I was even able to enter the information into my computer in the first place?

To even begin to answer these questions would take at least a bachelor's degree in something like computer or electrical engineering. And even then, it’s still incredibly complicated (trust me, I know from experience). Most of us take modern technology for granted, without much thought as to how it physically works or the trajectory of its development. And rightly so, a deep understanding takes a lot of time, effort and intense education. However, it’s important to at least appreciate that much of modern technology is built on scientific advancements which have enabled us to tap into the fundamental forces of the universe.

We have become masters of electrons and electromagnetic radiation (both of which can be manipulated through our understanding of electromagnetism, one of the four fundamental interactions of the universe), allowing us to store and transmit vast amounts of information at near the speed of light. This mastery has led to the development of what is probably the most complex system ever created by humans – the internet.

It’s undeniable to say that we live in an advanced, technology-driven civilization. In fact, technology (particularly digital and electronic) is so much a part of our lives, that it’s difficult, and unreasonable, to imagine a world without it. Not surprisingly, our very identities are merging with our devices like never before. This isn’t inherently bad. Continuously advancing technology and merging it with ourselves has extraordinary benefits. However, the potential negative outcomes of technological disruption are so severe that they must be addressed and discussed critically.

Take, for example, social media. Most of us don’t think about how these platforms are designed by thousands of brilliant software engineers and backed by years of psychology to be as addictive as possible – and it works.

The more time we spend online, the more data we create about ourselves, our behaviors and our habits. This collection of data is known as our digital identity. With advancements in AI, companies and governments are increasingly able to deal with and understand vast amounts of data, including much of the data we create about ourselves. This can allow for (sometimes) great YouTube recommendations, ads that are actually relevant and incredibly helpful services like Google Maps. But, if one simply steps back and observes the trajectory of these developments, the future outcomes and ethics aren’t so clear.

For instance, what if an algorithm can understand someone better than they understand themselves? (This honestly doesn’t seem so far-fetched as most of us don’t actually understand ourselves very well.) Or, what if we start to rely on algorithms to make increasingly significant decisions in our lives, like what to study or whom to marry?

Perhaps the most alarming danger of an increasingly digital civilization is the development of a digital dictatorships – a regime in which the ability to acquire and process enormous amounts of personal data is used to control a population (for a modern day example, look up China’s social credit system).

That’s not all either, advancements in genetic engineering are starting to accelerate and are raising some serious moral questions. Automation is predicted to cause massive unemployment and threatens to further widen the economic gap between the rich and the poor, but, on top of that, genetic engineering could create a biological gap between the rich and the poor. In fact, there’s already efforts among the ultra-rich techno-optimists of today to cure death. What better motivation to advance genetic engineering and other emerging technologies as quickly as possible than curing old age?

There are countless other ways in which technology is advancing significantly quicker than most can keep up with or are even aware of. For instance, advancements in brain-computer interfaces, VR/AR and nanotechnology all have their own disruptive capabilities. Whether they be beneficial or detrimental is dependent on how we decide to use them. Either way, the amount of change coming is disorienting and hard to make sense of. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to avoid the problems and address them later – exactly like climate change.

Because technological disruption is a pressing issue that must be addressed and discussed openly, I started a club at UNB focused on exploring emerging technology. Emerging Technology UNB, or ETUNB for short, aims to expose students to emerging technology and accelerate the much-needed public discussion on these topics.

 

Talking about emerging technology only goes so far, it should also be experienced first-hand to foster more insightful perspectives. For example, I spent an entire summer working with immersive augmented reality. Because of this, I was able think deeply about the trajectory of human-computer interactions and experience the power of emerging technology to influence my perception of reality.

Here's a 1-minute video summarizing my research project

For this reason, one of ETUNB’s main goals is to expose students to emerging technology through first-hand experiences. By hosting events in which students can try VR for the first time or interact with a social robot with AI built into it, ETUNB allows people to experience the trajectory of emerging technology and, hopefully, spark insightful discussions around technological disruption.

With exponentially advancing technology, we don’t have a lot of time to ask ourselves about the direction of these advancements or the purpose they serve. I only hope that there is enough time to address these issues properly and ensure that the coming disruptions are for the betterment of humanity.