A few weeks ago a news item made the rounds about an assembly robot which fatally injured a contractor at a VW production plant in Germany while the worker was setting up the device. What was a gruesome industrial accident of the sort that unfortunately happens almost every day was hyped by the media as the (first) strike of robots against humanity. And this to a degree that almost borders on satire. Even if satire, as we all know, can get away with nearly anything, I found the entire episode rather distasteful. After all: the robot has neither the intention nor the intelligence to commit such a deed. Any child knows that.
Why then did this topic arouse such interest? Because there exists a latent, vague fear of new technologies, especially when it concerns those whose mechanisms and impact aren't apparent at first glance. This has always been the case and isn't anything new.
If we look at society as a whole, I find it astonishing how quickly the relationship to any given technology can change – i.e., how quickly society takes the step from rejecting a technology to accepting it.
I was once again made aware of this recently at the Friedrichstraße station in Berlin. I had a few minutes to kill before catching my train. In the former departure hall (known as Tränenpalast) there is a permanent exhibition: “GrenzErfahrungen. Alltag der deutschen Teilung” (“BorderExperiences. Everyday life in Divided Germany”), provided by “Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland”. An interesting, easy-to-understand and free-of-charge exhibition about life in a divided country and about the train station that used to be a border crossing of sorts. In one corner of the exhibition a part of the surveillance center of the old GDR had been set up. Here's a picture:
Instinctively, one is overcome with an uneasy feeling when looking at the construction and while reading the descriptions; this was pretty bad, this police state, this GDR. Just like in Orwell. So many cameras, so many monitors.
Upon going back outside, I looked around and counted the surveillance cameras, finding three without having to search very hard. And I quickly realized that there is a level of monitoring at Friedrichstraße station today that is likely to be several times higher than what it was at that time. And the interesting thing is that nobody cares anymore. On the contrary, in any city in Germany worth its salt, comprehensive surveillance of inner cities is the norm. Surveillance technology has arrived and is accepted by society.
I can hear you object that this doesn't have much to do with the technology as such. What's important is who uses the technology, how he or she uses it, and for which purpose. That's precisely the point. Why? Because in society's perception this circumstance isn't even considered at first when new technology enters the picture. Technology embodies evil. At least for the time being.
A defensive posture can be observed whenever new technology enters into the broad consciousness of society. All of the naysayers and admonishers loudly warning everyone and pointing out all the bad things that can be done with technology. And it's true, of course one can do a lot of bad things with technology – a lot can go wrong. Of course this idea of “things going wrong” must be considered in the context of the prevailing attitudes of the time – “Zeitgeist” – and we are constantly changing. What is bad today can be considered good tomorrow in any given value system. Rapid technological change will continue to provide its challenges to society.
However, if one examines the use of new technology in the historical context, one comes to realize that, for the most part, mankind has usually been able to use technology for the benefit of all over longer periods of time. Two examples:
Even if this technology, when used in nuclear weaponry, has also inflicted grave damage on humanity, one sometimes forgets that it has been a considerable factor in providing electricity on a global scale for decades (twelve percent worldwide, 20 percent for industrialized nations). This doesn't mean that the technology is uncomplicated. But it does illustrate that we are very well capable of using dangerous technologies for the common good.
The Aggregat-4 Rocket, commonly known as the V-2, was designed by Wernher von Braun during World War II as the world's first functional long-range guided ballistic missile using a liquid-propellant rocket engine. Basically, this is the same technology that Elon Musk's SpaceX uses to transport space freighters into orbit. Between the two mankind has experienced many missions and milestones of human history, all of which would not have been possible without this technology – though originally designed for destruction.
The new technologies we will see in the next years, will create a sense of unease in society, at least at first. And the possibility will continue to exist that they will be used to inflict damage onto society. If one takes a long-term view, this concern is unfounded, however.
Until now, technology has created an environment in which more people live on this planet in good conditions, while living in peace, than had previously been possible. Unless of course you consider hunting with bow and arrow as the only true and fitting lifestyle. Or traveling by horse and carriage. Or reading a newspaper – on real paper, no less!
Technological developments do require some mental agility from society and, by extension, from each and every one of us. But, we already are more adept at this than 20 years ago. And, as a society, we were and continue to be conditioned in keeping with the ever-shorter development cycles of new technology.
So my advice is to meet new technologies with a more open mindset and to not always think about the bad, evil things one can do with them. Collectively, we will always find a way to use them for “good”. Sometimes it just takes a little time.