On my radar: The dark side of tech

2013-08-07 10:00

The accessories of modern living make life easier, but the evolution of technology brings with it inherent risks.

Fans of Star Wars will appreciate the reference and phrase crossing over to the dark side.

The protagonist of the blockbuster franchise’s first series, Luke Skywalker, eventually discovers his father is also his nemesis and evil opponent Darth Vader, who then tries to lure his son away from fighting evil, to join him in serving the darkside.

It is the classic good-vs-evil scenario of countless other movies, novels and traditional folklore.

In the 21st century, we, with our technology, find ourselves at a similar fork in the road.

We have at our disposal untested technologies – all purported to be the best thing since sliced bread – but at the same time they can be put in service of either good or evil.

Take Google Glass, for example.

This little device is poised to be one of the most revolutionary gadgets to be incorporated into our digital lives.

If you haven’t seen a prototype yet, it looks like a pair of spectacles, but instead of two optical frames it only has one small glass rectangle just off the centre of your right eye.

This little rectangle of glass can apparently give the wearer the illusion of having a 63cm colour TV floating about 2.5m in front of him or her – to the wearer, it ends up looking something like a Mission: Impossible virtual screen.

You will be able to use it to scroll through emails, take pictures or record videos, then watch or transmit them, all with simple voice commands.

It is also meant to allow other people in your social network to see what you are seeing, in real time.

But even though it has not been commercially launched yet, a recent survey in the UK already found that 20% of people interviewed would like to see the sale of the gadget banned. A backlash of this nature, before the official launch, is obviously raising eyebrows.

The main concerns are those of privacy – an increasingly important topic in the digital era.

Unlike with cameraphones, where the user still has to raise and point the device when taking a photo, Google Glass will enable its user to secretly capture images without anyone knowing. Issues of copyright at trade fairs, sensitive government locations and general reconnaissance of one’s competitors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potentially invasive uses of the gadget.

These might be unintended consequences of the technology, but they are relevant concerns.

Unintended consequences seem to be the name of the game when dealing with today’s new technologies.

It could be argued that inventors or developers only have good intentions, but as the saying goes: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Another example is the 3D-printing revolution. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is set to completely alter the value chain of manufacturing.

When we moved from an agricultural age to an industrial age, mass manufacturing changed the world. Quality items could suddenly be produced on a large scale, but this was only really effective when producing in large numbers.

3D printing will enable anyone with a 3D printer (and very soon they will be as common and accessible as buying an old-school paper printer) to print one-off items in their homes.

Currently, 3D printers already make 20% of retail products, from kitchen appliances to shoes and smartphone components.

The darkside of 3D printing is that the first home-printed gun has been produced and fired in the US, which, in turn, opens a whole new portal to evil intentions.

Drones – the sophisticated versions of remote-controlled miniature airplanes, which have been used by the US military for years – are now poised to be used commercially.

On the plus side, drones are now used to combat rhino poaching on game farms and savvy marketers are even using them to deliver beer and pizza at music festivals.

But we’ve recently discovered that the US government has been using drones to spy on their own citizens “for their own good”.

Driverless cars are yet another looming problem.

The prototypes are already proving to have a 100% safety record.

The only accidents that have occurred are when other drivers crash into them.

Fantastic and futuristic possibilities abound when cars can drive themselves: think hassle-free navigation in a foreign city when you rent your own driverless car.

But when cars are no longer mindless machines, but sophisticated computers on wheels, assassination will become as easy as hacking into a braking system – nothing as messy and clumsy as having to shoot someone.

A fork in the road indeed.

Of course, in terms of innovation and technology, this is one of the most exciting times to be living in.

The possibilities are endless, but with so much freedom comes the burden of responsibility.

We don’t so much adopt new technologies as co-evolve with them, and the solution they provide determine the trajectory of our civilisation.

The saying, “be careful what you wish for”, has never been more apt.

»?Chang is the founder of Flux Trends: www.fluxtrends.com

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