Embracing imperfection

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
— Vince Lombardi

As a consequence of both election results, in the UK with #Brexit and in the USA with #Trump, I have found myself thinking about the impact that the role I play in society has on such events. I’ve worked in ‘technology’ for most of my career, minus a short career break for some quasi-philanthropic charity work in India. Given the attention given to issues such as #fakenews and social media #echochambers – it does appear that the role of modern technologists is quite substantial.

I was attending the #WebSummit conference when the news broke that #Trump had won the US election. I was surrounded by 50,000 people of whom the majority seemed shocked and despondent at the result. There were some passionate speeches, incredulity at the result, and a real sense of bitterness at those who had exercised their democratic freedoms to elect #Trump. However, like with #Brexit, I felt the need to turn the mirror on myself and question what I had contributed.

One of the topics of conversation at #WebSummit was on Robotics and the ethical dilemmas created by new humanoid technologies. Ben Goertzel, from Hanson Robotics debated strongly against Andra Keay, from Silicon Valley Robotics, espousing the laissez-faire approach to ‘suck it and see’ and deal with the ethical dilemmas as they appear – whereas Andra proposed spending time to contemplate a code of ethics before the jump is made.

I admire Andra’s approach, but for me this code is decades too late.

Media, communication & social interactions are all things that affect our emotions, decision making and world-views – even without a human face. The power of books and films to elicit strong emotions is just as powerful when read on wordpress.com or Facebook. With traditional media, we understand the implicit contract so beautifully articulated in Yes, Minister! by Jim Hacker*, we question the stories and understand the biases if not quite accepting that we’re affected by them. However with Facebook, Twitter & other online communities we’ve been tricked. We expect them to be passive commentaries on our social circles, not biased media outlets, shaped to affect our emotions. Technology strategists like Nir Eyal seek to focus on modifying behaviour; using digital cues to affect real-world actions. Where was the debate around ethics for non-robotic technology; surely this is as relevant a field as the new humanoids we’re creating?

Just because we can do it, does that mean we should?

In the world of science, this question is used to temper progress. Without understanding the consequence of our actions, we should not seek to blindly continue. This doesn’t mean we have to answer all the unknowns, nor does it mean not take risks. It does mean that we should have a thought for our own safety, and the safety of others before continuing down that road. Ironically President Obama gave a wonderful speech on the 17th October, about how the government cannot be run like a Silicon Valley startup. His pertinent message included reference to the following:

So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences – setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio – then I think those suggestions are terrific.
— President Obama

So perhaps it’s not government that’s broken; perhaps some of the bureaucracy is good? In technology and start ups we solve problems; we’re progressing to find near-perfect solutions to particular problems, without contemplating how some of the brokenness serves a function. We destroy low-skilled jobs in the name of automation, without thinking about how to provide purpose to those who would quite happily take on those low-skilled tasks for financial reward. We disrupt low-margin business models by disinter-mediating those who cannot provide a robust defence and let big businesses who’d fight back off the hook.

Let’s as a community start to look before we leap and to make sure we’re benefitting the whole of society; not just ourselves.

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