Americans are often portrayed as technological enthusiasts with unbounded eagerness to adopt new technologies. According to a recent Pew Research survey, nearly 28 percent of Americans view themselves as early adopters of new technologies. This is much higher than estimates in other cultures.
But when it comes to biomedical technologies that enhance human abilities, they are more cautious. Many of the 4,000 survey respondents and focus group participants in another Pew study “felt that while no effort should be spared to help the sick, society should proceed with caution before allowing biomedical advancements to boost the capacities of healthy people.”
On the surface it would appear that the concerns were about the desire to maintain human identity and nature as we have come to perceive them. However, there are deeper concerns about equity and social justice at work. As I argue in “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies,” the fear of loss is a major driver of technological anxiety. This is more prevalent in societies where inequalities are already a manifest social feature.
Technological anxieties — as well as opportunities — are heightened by the dazzling rate of change we see today. Performance enhancement is a cornerstone of technological innovation, and up to now, it has predominantly applied to extra-bodily applications. A decade ago, technologies such as gene editing, brain implants and synthetic blood were confined to realms of basic research with distant applications. That is no longer the case.
As the Pew Research survey shows, there are always supplementary arguments against emerging technology. Certainly, brain implants have the potential to confer advantage to sections of society with access to them. But it also lends itself to criticism because of security concerns. The prospects of having those with brain implants hacked or remotely controlled are real. Such security concerns provide a convenient cover that allows equity and social justice issues to go unaddressed.
The rapid pace of change is likely to create anxiety among large sections of society. But its exponential nature will also dramatically increase technological possibilities available to humanity to address its challenges. The future therefore will be influenced by how well we can design social systems that allow humanity to harness the benefits of emerging technologies in inclusive ways. This is not pandering to socialist ideas but appeals to fundamental moral values that define who we are as humans.
Many of the emerging technologies are ready for commercial deployment faster than governments can figure out how to regulate them. In some cases governments are making early decisions not to regulate emerging technologies. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced that it will not regulate fitness trackers and wellness apps.
This hands-off approach is a signal that the government will not unduly stand in the way of innovation. But the public could construe such a decision as government abdication of its duty to regulate new technologies. This is problematic as people traditionally look to government to ensure that advancements in industry protect the public interest and promote social goals, such as equity.
Even better regulation may not address the deep-seated perceptions that new technologies could lead to inequities. The imagery of “superhumans” and human “robots” painted in the Pew Research survey reveals concerns about capability divides in society that give unnatural advantages to certain groups.
The way forward lies in bringing our fractured societies in line with human aspirations and technological possibilities. Much has been said about preparing future generations by strengthening their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. This is only half the equation.
STEM education without deeper appreciation of what makes us human is futile. Many of the business models that glorify “disruption” seek to unravel the social tapestry that humanity has over time woven together around incumbent technologies. The rise of sharing businesses such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb offers great benefits to consumers, for example, but their disruptive business models are generating disquiet in incumbent industries and changing our views of car- and homeownership.
Conversely, engaging in social and political discourse without an adequate understanding of the technology exposes our ignorance. We need a balance between the two. Rather than returning to the days of “natural philosophy,” education today requires a more enlightened approach that integrates the study of technology and the humanities.
The integrated education addresses this perception of inequity in two primary ways. It gives innovators greater awareness of how their inventions impact people at all levels of society, from those who adopt technology early to those who often get left behind. And those impacted by innovation are more likely to embrace new technologies when they are developed in an environment that is sympathetic to their social needs.