Saturday, 3 March 2018

Hi-tech roadblock: is some upcoming technology just too radical for society to handle?

Many people still consider science to be a discipline wholly separate from other facets of human existence. If there's one thing I've learnt during the eight years I've been writing this blog it's that there are so many connections between STEM and society that much of the scientific enterprise cannot be considered in isolation.

Cutting-edge theories can take a long time to be assimilated into mainstream society, in some cases their complexity (for example, quantum mechanics) or their emotive value (most obviously, natural selection) meaning that they get respectively misinterpreted or rejected. New technologies emerge out of scientific principles and methodology, if not always from the archetypal laboratory. STEM practitioners are sometimes the driving force behind new devices aimed at the mass market; could it be that their enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge prohibits them from realising that the world isn't yet ready for their brainchild? In some cases the "Hey, wow, cool, look what we can do!" excitement masks the elaborate web of socio-economic factors that mean the invention will never be suitable for a world outside the test environment.

There are plenty of examples of pioneering consumer-oriented technology that either could never fit into its intended niche (such as the UK's Sinclair C5 electric vehicle of the mid-1980s), or missed public demand, the Sony Betamax video recorder having been aimed at home movie makers rather than audiences just wanting to watch pre-recorded material (hence losing out to the inferior-quality VHS format).

At the opposite pole, mobile phone manufacturers in the early 1990s completely underestimated the public interest in their products, which were initially aimed at business users. Bearing in mind that there is considerable worldwide interest in certain new radical technologies that will presumably be aimed at the widest possible market, I thought I'd look at their pros and cons so as to ascertain whether non-STEM factors are likely to dictate their fortunes.

1) Driverless automobiles

There has been recent confirmation that in the next month or so vehicle manufacturers may be able to test their autonomous cars on California's state highways. With Nissan poised to test self-driving taxis in time for a 2020 launch, the era of human drivers could be entering its last few decades. Critics of the technology usually focus on the potential dangers, as shown by the system's first fatality in May 2016.

But what of the reverse? Could the widespread introduction of driverless road vehicles - once the public is convinced of their superior safety attributes - be opposed by authorities or multinational corporations? After all, in 2016 almost 21% of drivers in the USA received a speeding ticket, generating enormous revenue. Exact figures for these fines are unknown, but estimates for annual totals usually centre around six billion dollars. In addition to the fines themselves adding to national or local government coffers (for all sorts of traffic misdemeanours including parking offences), insurance companies benefit from the increase in premiums for drivers with convictions.

Whether vested interests would find the economic losses suitably offset by the prevention of thousands of deaths due to driver error remains to be seen. This stance might seem unjustly anti-corporate, but when the past half-century's history of private profit ahead of public interest is examined (for example, the millions paid by the fossil fuel and tobacco industries to support their products) there are obvious precedents.

One key scientific method is parsimony, A.K.A. Occam's razor. According to this principle, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, at least in classical science; quantum mechanics plays by its own rules. An example counter to this line of thought can be seen in the work of the statistician, geneticist and tobacco industry spokesman R.A. Fisher, a keen pipe smoker who argued that rather than a cause-and-effect between smoking and lung cancer, there was a more complicated correlation between people who were both genetically susceptible to lung disease and hereditarily predisposed to nicotine addiction! Cigarette, anyone?

As for relinquishing the steering wheel to a machine, I think that a fair proportion of the public enjoy the 'freedom' of driving and that a larger contingent than just boy racers won't give up manual control without a fight, i.e. state intervention will required to put safety ahead of individuality.

2) Extending human lifespan

It might seem odd that anyone would want to oppose technology that could increase longevity, but there would have to be some fairly fundamental changes to society to accommodate anything beyond the most moderate of extended lifespans. According to a 2009 report in The Lancet medical journal, about half of all children born since 2000 could reach their hundredth birthday.

Various reports state that from 2030-2050 - about as far in the future as anyone can offer realistic prognostication for - the proportion of retirees, including far greater numbers of Alzheimer and dementia sufferers, will require many times more geriatricians than are practicing today. The ratio of working-age population to retiree will also drop, from 5:1 to 3:1 in the case of the USA, implying a far greater pensions crisis than that already looming. Numerous companies are using cutting-edge biotech to find cell renewal techniques, including the fifteen teams racing for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, so the chances of a breakthrough are fairly high.

Japan offers a hint of how developed nations will alter once extended lifespans are available on a widespread basis: one-third of the population are over sixty and one in eight over seventy-five. In 2016 its public debt was more double the GDP and Japan also faces low labour productivity compared to other nations within the OECD. Figures such as these show that governments will find it economically challenging to support the corresponding population demographics, even if many of the healthcare issues usually associated with the elderly are diminished.

However, unlike driverless cars it's difficult to conceive of arguments in favour of legislation to prevent extended lifespans. If all nations achieved equilibrium in economy, technology and demographics there would be far fewer issues, but the gap between developed and developing nations is wide enough to deem that unlikely for many decades.

Discussions around quality of life for the elderly will presumably become more prominent as the age group gains as a proportion of the electorate. There are already various types of companion robots for those living alone, shaped anything from cats to bears to anthropomorphic designs such as the French Buddy and German Care-O-bot, the latter to my mind resembling a giant, mobile chess piece.

3) Artificial intelligence

I've already looked at international attitudes to the expansion and development of AI but if there's one thing most reports discuss it is the loss of jobs to even semi-intelligent machines. Even if there is a lower proportion of younger people, there will still be a need to keep the populace engaged, constructive or otherwise.

Surveys suggest that far from reducing working hours, information technology has caused employees in developed nations to spend more time outside work still working. For example, over half of all American and British employees now check their work email while on holiday. Therefore will governments be able to fund and organise replacement activities for an obsolete workforce, involving for example life-long learning and job sharing?

The old adage about idle hands rings true and unlike during the Great Depression, the sophistication of modern technology doesn't allow for commissioning of large-scale infrastructure projects utilising an unskilled labour pool. Granted that AI will generate new jobs in novel specialisms, but these will be a drop in the ocean compared to the lost roles. So far, the internet and home computing have created work, frequently in areas largely unpredicted by futurists, but it seems doubtful the trend will continue once heuristic machines and the 'internet of things' become commonplace.

So is it possible that governments will interfere with the implementation of cutting-edge technology in order to preserve the status quo, at least until the impending paradigm shift becomes manageable? I could include other examples, but many are developments that are more likely to incur the annoyance of certain industries rather than governments or societies as a whole. One of the prominent examples used for the up-coming Internet of Things is the smart fridge, which would presumably reduce grocery wastage - and therefore lower sales - via its cataloguing of use-by dates.

Also, if people can buy cheap (or dare I mention pirated?) plans for 3D printing at home, they won't have to repeatedly pay for physical goods, plus in some cases their delivery costs. Current designs that are available to print items for use around the home and garage range from soap dishes to measuring cups, flower vases to car windscreen ice scrapers. Therefore it's obvious that a lot of companies producing less sophisticated household goods are in for a sticky future as 3D printers become ubiquitous.

If these examples prove anything, it's that scientific advances cannot be treated in isolation when they have the potential of direct implementation in the real world. It's also difficult to predict how a technology developed for a single purpose can end up being co-opted into wholly other sectors, as happened with ferrofluids, designed to pump rocket fuel in the 1960's and now used in kinetic sculptures and toys. I've discussed the problems of attempting to predict upcoming technology and its future implementation and as such suggest that even if an area of technological progress follows some sort of predictable development, the wider society that encapsulates it may not be ready for its implementation.

It may not be future shock per se, but there are vested interests who like things just the way they are - certain technology may be just too good for the public. Who said anything about how much fossil fuel industries have spent denying man-made climate change? Or could it be time to consider Occam's razor again?