When innovation isn’t always such a wonderful thing

Technological innovation tends to capture our imagination and our emotions. The launch of new products – such as a new iPhone – these days tends to be done with a Hollywood-style fanfare intended to make us believe that the technological advance on show will change our lives and change the world.

The reality almost always turns out to be more prosaic. Yes, the ability to send messages using a cartoonish animated avatar is a bit of fun, but hardly life changing for anyone. Yet every little change, from a slightly tweaked design to improved screen resolution that no human eye can really notice, is billed as the greatest gift humanity has ever been given. And so many of us seem to swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Apple has billed its latest MacBook Pro as ‘the greenest ever’ – and this from the company that refuses to embrace the principles of a circular economy and that has turned planned obsolescence into an art form that generates billions in quarterly profits while continuing to fill the world with electronic waste.

But maybe nowhere is the hype so great as in the field of so-called Artificial Intelligence (AI). The prospect of automating almost everything and handing over much of our world to algorithms has become the source of boundless excitement and enthusiasm for technophiles and the source of fear and anxiety for workers and professionals who have been promised that their jobs will disappear into the cloud without so much as a sucking sound. Poof!

But every so often, events come along that should temper our enthusiasm.

Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java sea shortly after take-off, killing all 189 people on board. The full causes of the crash are yet unknown but it seems that some combination of faulty sensors and computer-generated instructions to the pilots may have played a part.

Other catastrophic events may well be in the making. Nobody yet knows, for instance, what will happen to the stability of financial markets as more and more transactions are handled by algorithm with no human supervision.

Or what the long term effects would be if blockchain technology with its high energy consumption really takes off (some claim that even in its current limited use, blockchain technology already produces as much carbon emissions as the whole airline industry).

The collapse of the road bridge in Genoa has been explained by the fact that the architect in charge used a new and previously untried technology which, it turns out, made it more likely that water would get in between metal and concrete and cause corrosion. But hey, he was being boldly innovative. Probably worthy of an award or two.

Such events should make us pause before embracing any new technology as though the combination of the words new and technology wrapped in the moniker of ‘innovation’ must always represent an unalloyed good.

None of this is intended to belittle technological innovation and the benefits it has and will continue to bring to the world. Nor should we discourage it or be Luddite about it. But maybe neither should we go to the other extreme and allow flash and hype to cause us all to be drawn in like fools where angels fear to tread.

Technological innovation has always, over time, transformed the world. Whether it was innovation in military technology that allowed the bloody building of empires or medical technology that saved and prolonged lives, such advances continually change the world we live in.

The question is whether, as the pace and nature of technological innovation changes, we are capable of taking the time to evaluate benefits and harms and make sure that we learn to harness those benefits while minimising the harms. And to be allowed to do so without being accused of being anti-progress.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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