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10 August 2018

What happens when tech goes rogue?

Written by: Jermaine Dallas, Writer at Edelman

Technology

Ever get the feeling you’ve created something you might regret later? Many people name American physicist Robert Oppenheimer as a classic case of inventor’s remorse – pondering the morality of his role as one of the “fathers” of the first nuclear bomb.  

You might accuse me of watching one too many sci-fi movies or maybe there is cause for concern about technology in the future turning evil and also becoming too powerful to stop. Is the technology industry facing its very own Oppenheimer moment? 

I’ve been keeping an eye on companies such as Boston Dynamics, whose innovations are as impressive as they are perturbing. Most recently, their SpotMini headless robotic dog gained attention because of its eerie similarity to the autonomous killing machines seen in Black Mirror. In the episode of the show entitled Metalhead, the blood-thirsty robots go on an unstoppable rampage. Videos from Boston Dynamics show that its mini machines can already open doors – a bit like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, even when challenged by humans. In fact, Black Mirror’s creator Charlie Brooker admitted to basing the episode around Boston Dynamic’s creations.  

Meanwhile, at a recent robotics conference in California, Boston Dynamics announced that its SpotMini dog-bot will go on sale next year.    

So, is it time to panic? Not quite yet. No one we know is building machines with ulterior motives. And indeed, some of the most cutting-edge hardware has applications that could genuinely transform not just surveillance, but also search and rescue, thus enhancing our security and safety. For instance, in a burning building, an autonomous robot could be sent in to look for survivors in a way that would be impossible for human firefighters.    

Maybe the most worrying technology might not come in the form of robots at all. Institutions have long relied on algorithms that have the potential to create much more damage to civilisation than a droid ever could. If HR or education algorithms are baking in bias that unintentionally marginalises entire sections of society, with little scrutiny or transparency, mankind is open to a whole range of problems.  

It could be the case that society should place more of a focus on holding to account the technology we’re already using to make sure it represents good principles in fairness and positive outcomes. News of the technology sector’s growth in compassionate technology in the UK is a step forward. Our technology future does not have to be a dystopian nightmare. Technology can and does have a positive impact on the lives of everyday people. Long may it continue.  

It’s been said that the difference between a mountain and a molehill is your perspective. It is indeed vital for brands to communicatie clearly how, why and what they are innovating, particularly in areas that are new to consumers. They have to take the public on a journey, so that they see the vision of the company and accept the product or service that they deliver.  

At a time when trust in business (and governments and media and NGOs) is crumbling, companies should have at the heart of their innovation a rock-solid commitment to doing the right thing. That’s an approach driven by good people, products, and most importantly, purpose. It’s something that people will increasingly expect from the companies they interact with.  

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