Powering Technological Responsibility
What is the good life? Greek philosophy proposes that it’s a life lived with meaning and working is directly tied to that meaning. In today’s world where technology is making decisions for us and machines are replacing human job roles, is the good life in jeopardy?
Moshe Vardi, the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering at Rice University and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, has spent nearly four decades considering this question. “I can still be excited about my work, because the field keeps changing,” he said. “It’s an intellectual adventure. You’re faced with novelty all the time. I’m addicted to the excitement of research.” An elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Vardi served as editor-in-chief of the journal Communications of the ACM for more than a decade. Writing a regular column for the information technology masses helped change his career and led to him doing broad outreach and thinking about consequences.
With great power comes great responsibility. “If you asked me 25 years ago if the computer would have great powers, I would have said, ‘potentially,’” Vardi said. “Now technology has become tremendously powerful. And in a small way, I’m part of it. Many of my students work for huge tech conglomerates. We get funded by those companies and they benefit from the research we do.” With technology playing such a central role in our lives today, it’s difficult to overlook technological consequences. “With wisdom, I ask of new advancements, ‘It’s exciting, but what does it mean for society?’” he said. “I used to think that it was someone else’s job to think about that. Now I feel a sense of personal responsibility.”
Vardi has learned that no technological advance is without negative effects. Take food, for example. While we need it to survive, advances in food have made it so easily accessible and affordable that obesity rates have spiked. “We need to try to leverage the good things and offset the consequences,” Vardi said. “Technology, just like almost everything in life, is a mixed bag. Technology always brings benefits and also threatens us.”
With the all-encompassing role technology plays in modern society, we’re beginning to ask questions such as: Did we elect our president or did technology? Are iPhones too addictive for children, teenagers and adults?
Currently, Vardi is considering the consequences that arise from the dramatic improvement of deep learning in machines, a form of artificial intelligence. “While it’s exciting that machines can make all kinds of decisions, which questions are we willing to delegate to machines?” he asked. “Now that machines can learn from massive amounts of data, people want to delegate more and more decisions to them.”
Some people think machines make unemotional and less flawed decisions than humans, while others argue it’s morally offensive that machines make such life-altering decisions, according to Vardi. “You used to need a person to determine if you were eligible for a loan,” Vardi said. “Now, we can have machines make that decision. Am I happy letting a machine decide if I should buy a house or not? In the legal arena, should a machine decide who should be given or denied bail? Should they decide if children are separated from their parents?”
Another serious issue brewing in deep learning is Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). “You might say the ultimate decision is whether or not a machine can end human life,” Vardi said. “Some people want to automate drone missiles. Meaning the drone will be flown autonomously and make a kill decision all on its own.”
These are all decisions that are forced on humans due to technology’s rapid progression. “The excitement of the progress and the fear of the consequences go hand in hand,” Vardi said. “I find myself very conflicted. On the one hand, I find technology enormously exciting, and at the same time, I find it very scary.”
Vardi believes society tends to underestimate the impact of technological change and overestimate how long it will take to deploy. “When people think about the future, they are always overoptimistic about how long it will take for new technology to deploy,” Vardi said. “It usually takes longer, because when you deploy new technology, many things have to change to support it and human beings don’t like to change.”
Take the automobile, for example. Arguably the industrial product that changed life the most in the 20th century, the automobile became a mass consumer product in 1908 and completely changed how our urban fabric looks. “Today’s modern city, Houston in particular, has been shaped by the automobile,” Vardi said. “Think about how much of the real estate is roads, streets and parking. Fifty years from now, the city will be just as different as today’s city differs from the era of carriage and horse transportation.”
Vardi thinks the technology community has been guilty of techno optimism — if technology is good, more technology is better. Most technology is best without considering societal consequences. “As a professor of computer science and a member of the tech community, I’m trying to educate the public at large and also my own technical community — we have to step forward and accept responsibility. We won’t have the solution by ourselves, but we have to be part of the conversation.” Vardi believes humanists, scientists, politicians and others need to engage in a deeper understanding of where technology is going and how fast it’s going.
The Future of Technology
One thing is certain: Technology is not going away. “It’s what humanity is about,” Vardi said. “Utilizing technology is what distinguishes us from other species, and we’re not going to stop using it.” Now that we’ve assessed the pros and cons of technology, we’re beginning to be more careful about claims and scaling back quantity of use, he said.
Cars are far safer that they used to be, which has decreased car fatalities. “We liked the mobility, but not the risk of car technology,” he said. “So we improved cars and roads.” Vardi hopes this mindset carries over into information technology, and we ask how we can use technology in a wiser, more judicial way. “I do think we will see a more balanced use of technology in the future,” Vardi said. “We’re starting to realize how powerful and addictive these tools are. Even Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids have iPhones.”
Vardi believes the economic impact of technology will be major in the next 25 years and that discussions about work need to begin now. Humans have worked for the past million years, whether it was formalized or simply hunting and gathering. What do we do if we don’t need to work because technology does everything for us? “Now we’re facing robots and an automation workforce,” Vardi said. “For most of us, the main point of our jobs is to make a living. If we can’t find a job, we have a major economic issue on our hands. Maybe we need to work less, and we need to have these types of discussions.” For now, Greek philosophers’ insights on the good life remain as relevant as ever.