Tech businesses need to think differently about ethical and responsible innovation
In today’s complex social and technological world, good intentions alone are rarely enough if businesses are to survive and thrive
In an op-ed in The New York Times last October, journalist Kara Swisher asked, “ Who will teach Silicon Valley to be ethical?” Prompted by a growing litany of socially questionable decisions amongst tech companies, Swisher suggests that many of them need to grow up and get serious about ethics. Yet good intentions alone are rarely enough if businesses are to thrive in today’s increasingly complex social and technological world (something I grapple with in my new book “ Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies”).
Over this past year alone, a number of high-profile cases have highlighted the social as well as the business dangers of operating without fully understanding the consequences of people-oriented actions ( Facebook and Uber as well as Tesla’s Elon Musk, have all run into hot water here). Yet these represent just the tip of the iceberg of companies that are trying to create socially beneficial technologies, and realizing that they lack the insights or skills to fully read the risk landscape they’re operating in.
Things look even bleaker when companies and innovators who fail to recognize the limitations of their understanding are factored in. For instance, researchers from Google and DeepMind recently published details of an artificial intelligence-enabled system that can lip-read far better than people. According to the paper’s authors, the technology has enormous potential to improve the lives of people who have trouble speaking aloud. Yet it doesn’t take much to imagine how this same technology could threaten the privacy and security of millions-especially when coupled with long-range surveillance cameras.
Developing technologies like this and others in socially responsible ways requires more than good intentions. Rather, companies need a sophisticated understanding of the often complex dynamic between technology and society. Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker recently suggested the answer lies in scientists and technologists engaging with the humanities. And while she’s right in part, this on its own is not enough. Rather, technology companies need to get better at tapping into expertise in socially responsible innovation, and learning how to escape the ruts of conventional thinking if they are to thrive.
Intriguingly, part of the answer here could lie in their employees and leaders watching more science fiction movies.
Reading the social risk landscape
I’ve long been interested in how innovators and others can better understand the increasingly complex landscape around the social risks and benefits associated with emerging technologies. Growing concerns over the impacts of tech on jobs, privacy, security and even the ability of people to live their lives without undue interference highlight the need for new thinking around how to innovate responsibly. And here, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by what can be learned through watching science fiction films with a critical eye, as one of a number of techniques for guiding more socially responsible and ethical innovation.
Sci-fi movies are, of course, notoriously unreliable when it comes to accurately depicting science and technology. But because their plots are often driven by the intertwined relationships between people and technology, they can be remarkably insightful in revealing social factors that affect successful and responsible innovation.
This is seen in one of the most-often quoted reflections on the dangers of unthinking innovation from Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster “ Jurassic Park,” where self-proclaimed “chaotician” Dr. Ian Malcolm’s exclamation,”Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” But many other science fiction movies offer equally prescient insights.
“Jurassic Park” provides a surprisingly good starting point for thinking about the pros and cons of modern-day genetic engineering and the growing interest in bringing extinct species back from the dead. But it also opens up conversations around the nature of complex systems that involve both people and technology, and the potential dangers of “permissionless” innovation that’s driven by power, wealth and a lack of accountability.
Similar insights emerge from a number of other movies, including Spielberg’s 2002 film “ Minority Report”-which presaged a growing capacity for AI-enabled crime prediction and the ethical conundrums it’s raising. And then there’s Alex Garland’s 2014 film “ Ex Machina.”
“Ex Machina” imagines a world where machines can mimic human emotions. As with “Jurassic Park,” it centers around a wealthy and unaccountable entrepreneur who is supremely confident in his own abilities. In this case though, the technology in question is artificial intelligence.
The movie tells a tale of an egotistical genius who creates a remarkable intelligent machine-but he lacks the awareness to recognize his limitations and the risks of what he’s doing. It also provides a chilling insight into potential dangers of creating machines that know us better than we know ourselves, while not being bound by human norms or values.
The result is a sobering reminder of how, without humility and a good dose of humanity, our innovations can come back to bite us.
The technologies in “Jurassic Park,” “Minority Report” and “Ex Machina” lie beyond what is currently possible. Yet these films are often close enough to emerging trends that they help reveal the dangers of irresponsible, or simply naive, innovation. This is where these and other science fiction movies can help innovators better understand the social challenges they face and how to navigate them.
Navigating “orphan risks”
Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker believes that businesses need to work more effectively with the humanities to navigate the increasingly complex landscape around social and technological risks-what we are increasingly calling “orphan risks” -and she’s right. But it’s going to take more than just the humanities to get things right.
The good news is that the “new formulation” of complementary skills Baker says innovators desperately need already exists in part in a thriving interdisciplinary community focused on socially responsible innovation. My home institution, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, is just one part of this.
Experts within this global community are actively exploring ways to translate good ideas into responsible practices. And this includes the need for creative insights into the social landscape around technology innovation, and the imagination to develop novel ways to navigate it.
And this is where science fiction movies become a powerful tool for guiding innovators, technology leaders and the companies where they work. The fictional scenarios in these films — which often revolve around the complex relationships between people and technology — can reveal potential pitfalls and opportunities that can help steer real-world decisions toward socially beneficial and responsible outcomes, while avoiding unnecessary risks.
Just as importantly, science fiction movies bring people together. By their very nature, these films are social and educational levelers. Look at who’s watching and discussing the latest sci-fi blockbuster, and you’ll often find a diverse cross-section of society. The genre can help build bridges between people who know how science and technology work, and those who know what’s needed to ensure they work for the good of society.
This is an underlying theme in the new book “ Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.” Beneath exploring trends in emerging technologies through the lens of science fiction movies, the book uses these films to unpack what it means to innovate ethically and responsibly in a world where we are increasingly reprogramming biology, creating machines that think for themselves, and even re-designing ourselves in ways that far-transcend our evolutionary roots. And it builds on the idea that, irrespective of how deep the science is, or how powerful and complex the technologies are, businesses cannot hope to thrive unless they understand our relationship with them in the first place.
Of course science fiction films alone aren’t enough to ensure socially responsible innovation. But they can help reveal profound societal challenges facing businesses and innovators, and possible ways to navigate them. And in a future where ignoring or overlooking the complex risk landscape around powerful new technologies and shifting social norms, expectations and behaviors can be a game-changer,
This article is based on a piece that first appeared in The Conversation.