Sunday, July 22, 2012

Should it be Invented?

I don’t know about you but I often wonder about the pace of invention and innovation in our world.  There are marvels being Europe 2012 660-001envisioned, designed, engineered, and produced all the time.  Many inventions are meant to improve our lives in some way.  While driving the country side of Germany in May, we say many wind farms.  These are pretty cool devices to see.  Harnessing wind power to generate electricity is a good use of invention to try to tackle the problem of less clean technologies that power our always on lives.

As I get older, I’m looking forward to the results of research into personalized health care which might yield amazing improvements in how disease is detected and dealt with.  Imagine smart “drugs” that are actually super miniature computers, nanobots, programmed to be compatible with your DNA and once injected, rapidly seek out specific diseased cells.  Once found, the nanobots rearrange at a molecular level, the cell structure to correct the anomaly causing the disease.  There would be no side affects since these are “drugs” designed specifically for your makeup.  We’d all sign up for this, right?

I watched a TEDx video the other day (see below) about improvements coming, supposedly in a couple of years, for the precision GPS tools will have.  Todd Humphreys talks about the invention of GPS chips the size of dots.  We’ll want to put these on all of our things (the Internet of things…) so we can find them at any time using our smartphones or a Google map.  How cool is that, you’ll never lose your shoes, sunglasses, wedding ring, etc. again! Imagine students on outdoor education adventures being able to map their journey including pictures, videos, and posts, down to the millimeter and in real time their parents get to virtually enjoy the trip with them vicariously through technology.

GPS technology advancing

Think about it, inserting a miniature GPS chip in babies would mean that children will never be lost again.  If everyone volunteered to have their bodies GPS’d, cases such as with kidnap victims would be located rapidly and saved from some awful outcome.  Criminals, involuntarily might be GPS’d so that they could be tracked and controlled rather than jailed, saving millions of dollars.  Of course we have nothing to worry about since history has no examples of governments taking advantage of their people, right?  I think there are downsides to this technology. Governments could track their citizens in ways even George Orwell in his book 1984 didn’t anticipate. If you aren’t a student of history, now might be the time to become one and just take a peek at how power has been abused over the years and of course, our news today is full of examples.  Should this new GPS capability be invented or would it be best left alone?

“I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty” (The Singularity and schools: An interview with Vernor Vinge)

There are articles such as The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era written by Vernor Vinge Department of Mathematical Sciences San Diego State University which should cause us to take pause.  He writes in 1993,

“The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.”

I’ve written about exponential change many times such as in Education for an automated future.  There are positives and negatives to this march to progress.  The cause of the exponential effect is in the way we level up by leveraging our existing technology to speed the development of the next generation.  We are very good tool makers and users.  Now with the digital era, the machines (tools) themselves are getting to be far more involved in the creative process.  Some writers, such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, argue that the machines will exceed our intelligence and the exponential factor will accelerate.  Vinge refers to this phenomenon as “an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control”.

So, I wonder about our mad dash to invent tools that are smarter, faster, smaller, more powerful.  The problem is that the allure of being better is so strong that from a human perspective, it is probably impossible to stop the technological advancement.  If you are an avid reader of my blog, you might be thinking “why is he WP_000227contradicting himself” in writing this piece.  I generally advocate for the use of technology to enhance and transform learning and life.  As an optimistic, I tend to see the good in advancement first.  Take the early type-setting machines for example (see picture here from the Deutsches Museum).  What if these did not advance to being essentially a tool in our pockets?  We wouldn’t have the amazing explosion of knowledge we’ve enjoyed over the past several hundred years.  But, I do worry about the dark side of technological advancement.  Most of us would rather not think about that but as I mentioned earlier, history is littered with examples that should cause us to wonder and worry about how each new invention might and could be used for ill purposes.  I think awareness and thoughtfulness by enough people may be enough to better control how each new tool can and will be used.  Let’s be sure to advocate for and adopt technology with our eyes open and for the betterment not the detriment of people.