Sunday, January 19, 2014

Excited but Worried

This morning after breakfast, my wife and I were sitting chatting in our family room enjoying a French dark roast cup of amazing coffee when my iPhone, sitting on the coffee table, lights up.  It signaled that a new email had arrived.  This reminded me of how amazing our technology has become and how we essentially take it for granted.  How did the email get to my iPhone?  Really.  Can you explain it in full detail?  We can talk about how it came from the ‘cloud’ or a server at my work.  But how did it find my iPhone?  It had to find my my city, street, and house.  We use Shaw for wireless and Internet, so somehow (I know, IP routing, electrical signals, etc., but) it got from my worksite to Shaw then through kilometers of cables, dozens of complex machines, and eventually to our house.  It then ‘jumped’ into the air and enveloped the room.  Somehow the iPhone ‘sucked’ the email bits from the radio waves (how did it know to do this?) out of the air and converted it into an English readable message of text, pictures, and other materials.  But, even here if we dive deep into the iPhone guts, it’s a complete mystery to most humans.  Seriously, isn’t this stuff mind boggling amazing?  And this, just for a ‘simple’ email.

After reading the latest edition of THE FUTURIST, I became quite worried about where technological developments are taking us.  I’ve written and speculated a lot here about the future, some optimistically and other times not so much.  When I read about the trajectory of biometric research (p. 45 THE FUTURIST Jan-Feb 2014):

  • body-odor research (US Homeland Security) to track odor changes to support lie detection
  • 3D imaging (Japan) to capture gait, walking style, and barefoot print analysis – to recognize a person (90-99% accurate)
  • Palm vein patter recognition (already used in some US schools) scanned wirelessly
  • Human posterior pattern recognition developed for antitheft systems in the seats of cars (Japan) – 98% accurate

Add to this the explosion of unmanned and increasingly autonomous / intelligent drone mini-aircraft, millions of surveillance cameras, and we see how technology increasing supports a “Big Brother” surveillance society.  This should worry us.

Some people might refer to technology as good or bad when in fact it is a tool that can be used for good or bad.  It’s human behavior we need to worry about.  It’s similar to discussions in schools and Districts about Internet use or Digital Citizenship – it’s not about a good or bad tool, it’s about educating people about using good behavior with the tools.

I do tend to lean toward the excited side when considering uses for and the future of technology – I see potential.  However, I do read a lot more now about how in our lifetime increasing numbers of scientists and futurists are predicting questionable advancements in technology.  People write about the advancement of human-machine interfaces to replace missing body parts or nano-scale machines (nano-bots) that will replace antibiotics and other drugs – machines that will swim within our bloodstream seeking out bad cells and repairing them onsite.  This sounds great but where does it stop.  Perhaps nano-bots or body part replacements will be used to enhance human capabilities.  The Internet has become a global memory extension for all who connect…  Maybe as some predict, we will File:2 Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 in flight.jpgchoose to download our brains into machines that live forever (I don’t buy this future).  This could make steroid use in sports look like child’s play.  Due to the cost, one could imagine an elite society of wealthy individuals having exclusive access to these ‘miracle’ devices to enhance themselves.  Or think about autonomous drone use and the war machine.  We already have quite the capacity to kill one another, do we really need to be moving towards a ‘Terminator’ dystopia where robots are self organizing entities?

I think in schools and District we need to be teaching, learning, and talking a whole lot more about what is happening with technology, way beyond the basic use of iPads, laptops, and SMART Boards.  There needs to be more ethical conversations about technological advancement.  We still debate the value and purpose of technology in schools when it is rapidly enveloping our lives.  Shouldn’t conversations about potential futures and how we want to relate to our technology, start young, in our families, churches, and in our schools?  Or do we trust these conversations and the resulting trajectory to the computer scientists, engineers, war machine generals, and government officials to figure out on our behalf.  I’m not so sure the latter are always acting in the interest of the people they are supposed to serve.

Back to being excited about technology and the future.  I actually do think we have a lot to be excited about in how technology is advancing – it truly is miraculous.  But we need to balance this with thoughtfulness about consequences to environment, people, peace, fairness, freedom, equity, and power balances.