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The dilemmas of advancing technology

Much as I am excited by technology – what it enables for me personally and for helping achieve great things in our world, there are elements of it I am quite challenged with. After the amazing Singularity University NZ (SUNZ) Summit I have been particularly cogitating some of the ethical dilemmas it raised. As you can see from below – I do not have a black and white answer, rather I notice there are many shades of grey depending on your stand-point, experiences and ability to see where we have come from.

What is ‘Human’?

If you ask for my emotive response I would say I don’t like the idea of playing with nature, of tweaking with the genes of an unborn child. I am probably marginally less extreme about the idea of body implants, but it is still something I think of as ‘weird’!

Rationally however, I realise I am already augmented! I wear glasses and use orthotics; my uncle has just had a hip replacement and my husband has a pin in his knee from a cruciate knee operation. A friend had a pre-emptive operation when he discovered a pre-disposition to a genetic illness and another friend of mine died from a hereditary illness ….I find it hard to argue that if medicine had been advanced enough a little tweak to her genetic code would have meant a very different outcome.

What seems downright ‘odd’ or wrong today may be the norm tomorrow; just as we accept things today that may have been perceived as out there a few years ago.

Feed Me Now

I believe in a balanced diet and try to eat relatively healthily, although I am not really a saint when it comes to food. There’s plenty of processed foods in my cupboard and I sometimes sustain myself of canapes for several nights in a row when I am at evening functions!

I would normally turn my nose up at the idea of eating meat or eggs that originated from a petri dish. However, I am forcing myself to face some facts. I choose to eat and enjoy meat, but it has a significant negative impact on the environment – something else I am rather partial to. There’s impact on waterways, on greenhouse gases, land use, deforestation, etc; not to mention the cruel treatment of many animals and the fact that you have to kill them to eat them. According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (through deforestation and drought), it takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat.

While I think I am a healthy-ish eater, I also acknowledge I don’t know the source of much of my food anyway – much of it is probably being produced in factories with chemical additives, possibly using slave labour. And while the western world struggles with obesity, there are still 795 million people who do not have enough food to eat….that’s about one in every 9 people, but we don’t see it because it is not one in every 9 of us in our local town.

Would I therefore be better to eat artificially created food products? These products may be better for the environment and better for me as I would be able to buy foods that are specifically matched to my body needs?

Who’s Going to Drive You Home….

I am quite excited that it won’t be that far away before I can access (not necessarily needing to own) a self-driving car. I won’t need to worry about parking, I can do something useful while travelling to work (currently dead time on my little blue moped!) and when I go kayaking the car will be waiting at the get-out with my dry clothes. Globally 1.2 million people die in car accidents each year and apparently 90%+ accidents are caused by human error, so all of a sudden life is going to be safer. All the pluses here. The ethical challenge I have with this one is the thought that my car may be programmed to kill me if that means saving multiple others in the event of a crash. Do I buy or hire that car? Or do I pay a premium for a car that is programmed to save me at all costs? Does my self-preservation win over the logic or saving the many?

Who Knows You? Data Freedom Versus Privacy

This is not necessarily a new one, but it is one I still vacillate over. A very long time ago, when mobile phones were the size of a brick and the internet was not in everyday use, a friend of mine refused to have a Tesco Card. She believed they would track her purchases which would be an invasion of privacy and they would use this information to limit the choices they would offer in her local supermarket. More than two decades later the wealth of information that we give away is huge. Most of us acknowledge the fact we need to give a bit (of data) to take a bit (free email service, convenience of home delivery, music streaming…..). I hear plenty of people say “I don’t care what they have on me I have nothing to hide” but governments change and have been known to turn on their own citizens en masse, but even today government agencies use ‘profiling’; criminals, bullies or competitors might also access the information and with the growth in big data analytics it is only going to get easier to mesh all of our information more easily together in a way we might not have considered when we first logged into Facebook.

Technology will continue to push the boundaries and over-time I know we will continue to debate the ethics. I think it is important that we all take part in discussions about these ethics as much as the technology itself, whether as a business owner, tech user, student, or just interested citizen, it affects us all.

I’d be interested to hear what you have been thinking about these and similar issues.

Helen Shorthouse is a board trustee at the NZ Hi-Tech Trust.
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