Monday, August 18, 2008

Technology and moral responsibility

"Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds"
-J. Robert Oppenheimer (from Bhagavad Gita Krishna)

A recent conversation with a friend has got me thinking about the oft used phrase "technology is amoral". Usually used to justify why research or a technology should be pursued when there are foreseeable abuses of the research/technology.

I've used the phrase myself without really thinking what it means. Until now.

The phrase isn't a justification but rather a cop out. A cop out for the researcher or technologist involved from thinking the ramifications of the research or technology and ultimately taking responsibility for possible misuses of the technology or research.

Every researcher and technologist must consider the moral ramifications of what they are doing. It is not straight-jacket of right or wrong. But rather a thought experiment to understand the ramifications of the research or technology being pursued. The aim is to answer questions of what are the moral ramifications of the research or technology? What could happen if things went wrong? What could happen if it was used immorally? Do the benefits out weight the risks?

Being unable to answer those questions about research or technology being pursued is a gross act of negligence. To often justified by the phrase "technology is amoral".

The phrase should really be "technology is amoral, but technologists aren't". As scientists and technologists we must take moral responsibility to how our research and technology is used.

tags: Technology, Morality

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

(ed. this post is inspired by a recent trip to Namibia)

Can Silicon Valley save the world?


Silicon Valley has become divorced from the realities of a vast majority of people's lives. There is simply no sense of what is important to people's lives. Silicon Valley has become about technology for technology's sake. And technologies value is only realised when it is applied to solve a real problem. Speeding up how quickly you can print solar cells by 2% is not a problem. How to make it easy for rural farmers in Namibia use solar power is. Human/donkey powered harvesting machine that does not require power other than that of human/donkey sweat is a real solution to increasing the productivity of small african farms.

Umair Haque and Robert Scoble have both pointed to the malaise within Silicon Valley. Umair even set out a challenge to Silicon Valley to solve the real problems. I have serious doubts whether Silicon Valley can answer the challenge. Being unable to answer the "call to arms" will have serious effect on the influence of Silicon Valley. The money is in solving real problems and real pain. Another twitter is not going to make money.

My pessimism comes from the ivory tower aspect to Silicon Valley, the disconnectedness. If you are blind to real problems and real plain how are you going to solve them? How are you going to develop the technology that solves the problems? To often engineers and VCs get dazzeled by the technology and not how the technology solves the problem. Quickly the technology is pushed forwarded with little consideration to how the development of the technology will actually solve the problem it was designed to solve. Soon the technology no longer solves the problem but has become the end in itself.

Technology only has value when it solves a problem. It might be a materpiece of engineering but unless it solves a problem it is worthless.

It is possible to reverse this illness. The cure is simple. Travel. By travel I don't mean going to conferences in far off places. By travel I mean get out and see the countries your are visiting. Get off the beaten track and mix with the locals. Go backpacking. Traveling is one of the few ways where you bump up against the problems, where you can have the opportunity to see people's pains first hand. Documentaries are a poor shadow of real travel.

It is fair to ask what are real problems. Here's a (very) short list:

  • How do you increase the productivity of small farms without chemicals or expensive fuel? (hint: human powered mechanics)
  • How do you make it easy to install solar power? (hint: corragated iron)
  • How do you keep mobile phones charged cheaply when there is no mains and no solar chargers? (hint: hand crank radio)
Solving these problems would make a huge difference. Solving problems like this is independent of where the problem lies. These are problems (even if masked) across the world.

tags: Umair Haque, Robert Scoble, Silicon Valley