Facebook is on the defensive after the elections, with accusations that it helped spread misinformation. For days, Mark Zuckerberg was adamant his network had not affected the election results, calling that “a pretty crazy idea”. But after a torrent of criticism from his employees and the media — with evidence to back it up — he relented and took responsibility. He has promised to improve Facebook’s detection, reporting, and verification of news.
Twitter has been a much worse offender, allowing hatemongers and trolls to harass its users. It has, for years, known about the large numbers of fake accounts and bots on its platform; yet it has failed to do much about them. The tech industry has stepped into the field of publishing and communications without accepting the responsibility that comes with doing so. Newspapers would never dare to publish the incendiary posts that are common on social media, because there are laws against hate speech. Yet social media platforms get away with pleading ignorance because there are no clear laws making them liable for what transpires on their networks.
The gaps between laws and ethics are growing exponentially as technologies advance. The ethical codes we live by and the laws we follow are changing very slowly while technologies move too fast to care. It isn’t greed and arrogance; more often than not, the technologies’ creators (and this probably includes Zuckerberg) don’t understand the power of their creations — and the damage they can do.
We are going to see much more of that.
Technologies such as computing, medicine, sensors, A.I., robotics, and genomics are now advancing exponentially and are converging. This means one industry can encroach on another and cause the type of disruption social media did to publishing. I doubt anyone expected a dating site set up by a college dropout, Zuckerberg, would have the ability to change the outcome of the U.S. elections.
The technology industry is building medical devices, robots, and self-driving cars from computers, sensors, and A.I. — the same types of technologies Uber used to disrupt the taxi industry and AirBnb used to disrupt hotels. They have taken advantage of the gaps between laws and ethics, just as Facebook and Twitter have, to build billion-dollar businesses. This is what the future holds.
But are we ready for tech companies to become dominant players in the field of medicine, as will happen when we have A.I. applications that can do the work of doctors? Are we prepared for the elimination of millions of taxi- and truck-driver jobs when Uber’s self-driving vehicles begin to hit the roads? And are we ready for the “uberization” of large employment segments, as they move into what is called the gig-economy, in which they hire people on demand? All of this will become a reality in the next five or 10 years.
The fact is that we are not prepared for any of it, just as we were not ready for the disruptions that social media caused. The tech industry, in particular, is happy to book the revenue it gains from other industries and to shirk responsibility for the damage it does. It is easier to pretend the technologies do no harm than to deal with the problems they create.
Increasingly pervasive data networks and connected devices are enabling rapid communication and are ushering in unprecedented shifts — in everything from biology, energy, and media to politics, food, and transportation. They are redefining our future. It is imperative that we, as a society, understand technology’s impact and hold discussions and even heated debates about its use before that future becomes reality.
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke. Follow @wadhwa.