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Why We Need to Discuss the Downsides of New Technology

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Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s new book OTHERWORLD is on sale now where books are sold.

In 2003, a guy at Harvard built a website so his fellow students could ogle each other. By 2012, one billion people were using that site to stay in touch with their friends. In 2016, the Russian government turned to Facebook to influence the United States presidential election.

No one, not even Mark Zuckerberg, saw that one coming.

Eighty years ago, beetles were consuming Australia’s crops, so the government imported cane toads from South America, hoping they would get rid of the bugs. The toads had been a huge hit in other pest-ridden countries, and Australia fully expected to replicate their success. Of course, that wasn’t quite how things turned out. The toads (which are toxic) ate everything smaller, poisoned everything larger (including pets and humans), and conquered large parts of Australia. What do toads and technology have in common? Cane toads are a textbook example of an unintended consequence — an outcome of human action that no one sees coming. Someday, the role that Facebook played in America’s 2016 election will be taught in schools too.

The first 17 years of this century have witnessed remarkable technological advances. The unintended consequences of those advances are now coming to light. Texting has become a major cause of automobile accidents. Social media that was meant to bring everyone together has also invited the trolls to come out. Internet connected devices — from baby monitors to home security systems — have given hackers and thieves new ways to access to our homes.

Whether we’re dealing with ecology or technology, some unintended consequences are unavoidable. They’re the price we pay for progress, and solutions will eventually be found. But many unintended consequences result from ignorance or inaction. (Seriously — shouldn’t you make sure a species isn’t toxic before you import it?) When it comes to technology, modern society hasn’t been doing our homework. Most of us assume that guys like Mark Zuckerberg have the situation under control. We assume that tech corporations will always put humanity’s best interests before profits. We assume that tech designed to make life easier is bound to be harmless. If Facebook’s Russia scandal proves anything it’s that we can no longer afford to make such assumptions.

All new technologies come with tradeoffs. Nothing is free. In return for convenience, entertainment, or connection at an affordable price, we give the corporations behind the tech something, too. More often than not, we give them data — information about our lives, habits, and purchases that they sell to advertisers (or hostile foreign governments) that would like to reach out to us. Until now, we’ve assumed that the tradeoff is worthwhile. Letting advertisers place targeted messages in our Facebook news feed seems like a small price to pay for knowing what your sister’s boyfriend ate for dinner last Sunday. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the bargain isn’t quite so simple.

Let’s take, for example, the new iPhone X. Its image recognition capabilities let you unlock the phone by simply holding it up to your face. Super convenient, no doubt. The phone’s facial tracking technology allows you to create Animoji — animated emojis that mimic your personal facial expressions. Sounds fun, right? Now consider the bargain you’re making. In order to create a puppy emoji with your signature smirk, the iPhone needs a high-resolution map of your face. The data you’re handing over could be used to identify you in a crowd. A company with access to the information could track you wherever you go — online or off. Would Apple use the information for such nefarious purposes? Probably not. But others might.

That’s just the beginning. The unintended consequences of facial tracking technology will likely go far beyond surveillance. As the software behind Animoji continues to evolve, it won’t be long before we can create three-dimensional avatars that look like living beings. We’ll be able to make these avatars do and say whatever we please. Amazing, isn’t it? Now imagine the potential consequences. We already have a serious problem with fake news in this country. Until now seeing has still been believing. What’s going to happen when the line between real and fake finally disappears — and videos of Hillary Clinton kicking kittens start popping up in our news feeds? (Or videos of us doing things we’d never do start showing up in places we don’t want to see them.)

If you’re thinking this all sounds like sci-fi, think again. Software that replicates human voices already exists. (Adobe introduced it earlier this year.) Three-dimensional avatars are only a few years off. We can no longer entrust our future to tech gurus like Zuckerberg. We need to start discussing the downsides of emerging technologies — and figuring out how to address them.

Our new book, Otherworld, began with one such discussion. No emerging technology holds more promise than virtual reality. It will revolutionize the way we play, learn and travel. But it’s also a technology that’s sure to come with unforeseen consequences. For instance, what will we do with our bodies when our minds no longer need them? How will we care for them — and what will it cost? We don’t know the answers. We can’t predict the future. But we do think it’s time to start asking the questions. It’s up to all of us to make sure that these toads aren’t toxic.


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