The dilemma of innovation

An autonomous car is driving along a two-lane road. Approaching rapidly in the opposite direction is a semi transport. To the right are an elderly couple walking leisurely. Suddenly, two children chasing a ball run out in front of the car.

A split-second decision must be made. To go straight, even with full brake pressure, will mean hitting the children, likely killing or seriously injuring them. To veer left to avoid the children will mean certain death for the car and its passengers, and possibly the driver of the semi. To veer right is to kill the elderly couple.

What decision should be made? Such is the kind of question that those who program autonomous vehicles must consider and decide on. Answering such a question relies on societal values; and the answer may vary among different countries and cultures.

This is but one example of the myriad of moral decisions and frameworks demanded by our emerging technological capabilities. How are we to respond to the ever-increasing exponential change in our technologies, which may be outpacing our ability to make ethically sound decisions, especially as the world becomes increasingly polarized in its thinking and discourse?

Converging factors

Due to a variety of converging factors – the democratization of the internet, instant communication around the world at the speed of light, artificial intelligence, to name a few – human knowledge and innovation are expanding at an ever-steepening pace.

At the turn of the 20th century, Buckminster Fuller observed that human knowledge was doubling about every 100 years. Ten years ago, it took only one year for that doubling – and currently, it is estimated that human knowledge doubles every 12 hours.

With this rapid expansion has come an explosion of innovation in a myriad of sectors including communication, transportation, health and longevity, robotics, materials science, quantum computing, AI, space travel, batteries and electrical storage and much more. So many of these developments have profound implications for humans and the planet we inhabit.

internet / wireless connectivity

Two of the highest impact developments over the past 50 years have been the internet and wireless connectivity.

Before these advancements and their convergence went global, our options for communication with someone other than face to face were limited. We could make a phone call (on a landline, of course). Or send a letter. That was pretty much it save for esoteric means such as telex or short-wave.

Today’s communication technologies give us a vast array of ways to stay in contact with each other – emails, texts, social media apps and cell phones, to name but a few. Because of these options, our rate of communication has multiplied astronomically.

But what has been the result? Most of us face a barrage of electronic messages of various sorts on a daily basis, creating stress and FOMO anxiety. How does one not drown in the sea of communication demands, when working harder and longer doesn’t enable you to keep up? What needs to be learned or unlearned to navigate these cultural realities?

We have indeed learned how to communicate, anywhere, anytime. Yet, humans haven’t learned to limit and manage the why and when of our connectedness. Often, we feel like victims rather than stewards of the technologies we have created.

What do we do about that?

Unresolved challenges

There are already many other unresolved ethical and practical challenges with current technological advancements. We can now entertain ourselves 24/7 with a whole host of media and social media options, and many do. Why is that? Is this good for us or are we rewiring our brains to seek a steady diet of dopamine hits?

Crime and punishment are elusive in a digital world where the site of illegal activity occurs in cyberspace beyond the reach and often the capability of any national or local policing agency. What can we do about that, especially as much of this criminal activity targets the most vulnerable among us – including the sale of pornography to children and involving children, and the endless scams targeting seniors and those with cognitive disabilities?

We struggle to know what’s true in a world of ‘fake news,’ computer graphic imaging, AI generated content and international political interference. How can we recover some level of truth? Most of us self-report a sense of increasing complexity in the world and in our lives which can leave many of us with an underlying anxiety or often feeling overwhelmed. How can we recover peace and balance?

Ever-increasing pace

The future promises more innovations and changes at an ever-increasing pace. Some futurists are calling AI the most disruptive technology in recent memory, with the ability to change business models across every industry.

AI – which will ultimately become thousands, millions and eventually billions of times more intelligent than any human – can be the source of solutions to the world’s most intractable problems and, at the same time, the source of the most unimaginable crimes.

Let alone the existential threat of humanity getting outsmarted by machines – the stuff of dystopian movies like The Matrix. Again, at both an individual and societal level, we will be called upon to define and answer profound moral questions that emerge from the commercialization and adoption of all the innovation that is to come.

What is good?

How then do we humans rise to the challenge of agreeing together as to what is good and what is not? What needs to be regulated and what should be left to human choice?

(Currently, for example, there is a debate in Canada as to whether elementary and secondary students should be allowed to have their smartphones in the classroom. There is also international discussion on whether and to what extent to regulate artificial intelligence.)

What defines our humanity and how do humans and machines co-exist?

Science, psychology and theology would answer what it means to be human in very different ways. The former would see us as an evolving biological entity with a wide variety of physical attributes and capabilities. Psychologists and sociologists would define our humanity in terms of our self-awareness and our social relationships. Theology would see humans as beings with design and in relationship with Creator, self, others and the created world.

Each of these three approaches is likely to lead to differing or divergent responses to the ethical questions raised above (i.e. good and evil, regulated or free).

Science has little to say about good and evil. Indeed, survival of the fittest is the driving evolutionary principle and it possesses no inherent moral code. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas commented:

Science can tell you what you can do or what you can’t do and how to do it most efficiently. But science can never tell you whether you ought to do it; that’s a moral decision and a matter of faith.

The social sciences approach ethical questions from the perspective of what allows people to coexist in harmony and psychological health. What is good, therefore, is what allows people to flourish individually and collectively. That, of course, is often not easy to discern and agree upon.

Who decides?

Our societies tend to choose such things by the determination of the majority of the population through political process. Our recent global experience with vaccines in response to the global pandemic illustrates how difficult or even divisive such choices can be.

A theological approach to ethics seeks an external reference point for its moral compass, often rooted in the teachings of sacred texts or oral tradition. For example, our Indigenous peoples would look to the created world and draw wisdom and ethics from the inherent design embedded in that world as depicted in the stories passed on from generation to generation.

A Judeo-Christian perspective that builds on the concept of humans as image-bearers of the divine and therefore of infinite worth is based upon the creation story of the Bible and elucidated in the teachings of Jesus and biblical writers.

At one time, Canada would have considered itself as a Judeo-Christian country. Now, we would see ourselves as both secular and tolerant of multiple faith expressions. In the absence of a common moral compass, we are left to seek our ethics from popular opinion. That can be fickle and subject to manipulation. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar makes this point so eloquently.

Politicians, who make our laws and set our community standards, appeal to an electorate that is highly and increasingly polarized. This allows for dramatic swings in our ethical compass and in the policies that we are governed by. Indeed, as our need for ethical wisdom expands in response to an exponentially changing world, finding public consensus is becoming increasingly difficult.

A few questions

A few questions towards a path forward.

  • Can we Canadians recover the lost art of the dialectic in the public arena? To do so would require humility (to consider that our views may not be right), curiosity (to consider differing perspectives), deep listening (to make room for what has yet to be considered) and patience (holding a perspective that perhaps the best solutions to challenging problems lie in the emergence of alternative ‘third way’ approaches).
  • Can we refrain from the tendency in our public discourse to adopt self-righteous postures and to villainize those with whom we disagree? Can we move from rejection, cancellation and demonization to a posture of embrace, allowing the discomfort but powerful potential of divergent thinkers and concepts to have space in our minds and hearts? Indeed, workable solutions to many of the challenges set out above will need the creative genius of the combined wisdom of multiple and diverse perspectives.
  • Can each of us slow down and be present for long enough to recognize, attend to and grapple with the profound moral and ethical implications of engaging with new products, services and practices powered by emerging technologies? Recently, the movie Oppenheimer gave a powerful portrayal of how scientists, politicians and the military grappled with the destructive potential of the atomic bomb.
  • Can we seek together the wisdom of the faith traditions represented in our country? Likely, this will lead to a more fruitful basis for ethical thinking and decision-making than the court of public opinion.
  • Can we resist the powerful pull of group think, amplified by social media and curated media, and learn to think with increasing self-authorship? If we lessen the magnetic pull of opposing poles in our educational and political systems, we might unlock the potential for more imaginative thinking.
  • Can we become a more loving people, recognizing that, indeed, love conquers all? What if love – love for the other, love of self, love of planet – was the foundation for all ethical decision-making? Interestingly, all of the great faith traditions have love at their core.

Peter Mogan

Peter Mogan has been active as a lawyer, corporate director, businessman and mediator in BC and Ontario since 1978. He has worked closely with his business clients and boards as a strategic advisor – bringing a practical, entrepreneurial approach, combined with a very relational style.

Peter’s primary role at the present time is in corporate governance. He serves as Board Chair of five boards including Nexii Building Solutions, Amicus Global Relief Solutions, Mission Group Enterprises and Wrkout Media, and as Vice Chair of the international board of Food for the Hungry. He also is Chair of a MacKay CEO Forum Group.

He is Moderator of the Lead Team of Artisan Church.

He has written this comment as a member of The Bell: Diverse Christian Voices in Vancouver.

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1 comment for “The dilemma of innovation

  1. “it is estimated that human knowledge doubles every 12 hours.”

    What does that even mean? How does one measure that? And how much ‘knowledge’ is being lost at the same time – eg. the languages that are going extinct. Or the skills our ancestors had.

    Then there’s the distinction between ‘knowing what’ and ‘knowing how.’ And between knowledge and wisdom.

    Another distinction: knowledge (held in mind and heart) about big, important things vs evermore precise ‘knowledge’ about ever finer details. What’s more important?

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