“We Are Not Users: Gaining Control Over New Technologies”
Communications of the ACM, November 2021, Vol. 64 No. 11, Pages 37-39
By Yoram Reich, Eswaran Subrahmanian
“Our challenge is to ensure new technologies support us as humans, not ceding our control to them, or letting them make us dumber.”
On August 27, 2020, Amazon introduced its Amazon Halo: a technology comprised of AI software and a wristband that monitors body indicators including voice to detect problems, suggests a behavioral change, or other actions to potentially improve our health. One day later, Elon Musk and his team presented their Neuralink technology—AI software and a skull chip implant that receives and sends signals to our brain to compensate for brain malfunctioning, aiming to solve various brain-related health problems.
These announcements seem like great news amid the health crisis that engulfs many of us, with technology coming to our rescue to confront some of the most critical diseases of humankind. Yet risks remain, and once the genie is out of the bottle, they are often difficult to manage and contain—they range from unintended consequences and side effects to threats to privacy and loss or misdirection of control.
Endless devices surrounding us include processors that compute and monitor our abundant but wasteful lifestyle, with generations of products getting faster, cheaper, and “better.” We cannot envision the world today without them. Further, it seems there is no escape from this trajectory, especially with the visions of smart homes, smart cities, and the like. Even without implants or providing detailed personal data to a third party, we will be constantly watched, sampled, and analyzed.
Reflections on Technology
“…’modern improvements’; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance….. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract us from serious things. They are an improved means to an unimproved end.” [—Henry David Thoreau]
Technology has been long known to have positive and negative effects on society. Technology critic Neil Postman made the case that technology not only changes language but also our perception of ourselves. This is the nature of technology since the days of writing and then the printing press. Gutenberg’s printing press led to the revolution that eroded the central authority of the Catholic Church. Cars redefined the idea of individual freedom to move while creating suburbs, changing the identity of the collective, along with pollution and isolation that affect our health. Television, and then streaming services, created shared and then individual experiences of entertainment and information.
About the Authors:
Yoram Reich is a professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering and Systems Engineering Research Initiative, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Eswaran Subrahmanian is a research professor at the Engineering Research Accelerator and Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.