Tools and Weapons | Angel or demon?

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December 1, 2019 12:23 AM

Let us look at the good part first. It is a leveller and depending on the extent to which countries are open and willing to invest or let the IT firms come in, provides equal opportunity to everyone.

Let us look at the good part first. It is a leveller and depending on the extent to which countries are open and willing to invest or let the IT firms come in, provides equal opportunity to everyone.

Tools and Weapons, as the title suggests, is a treatise on the way one can use and abuse technology. Technology has always been viewed as an enhancer of efficiency and development, which has been witnessed formally since the industrial revolution started. Today, it has come to dominate every aspect of our lives, and all businesses are linked inexorably with technology. This is the good part of the story. There is also the darker side, and Smith and Browne, both working with Microsoft, have opened the debate on the so-called misuse of technology, which becomes hard to control at some point of time.

Let us look at the good part first. It is a leveller and depending on the extent to which countries are open and willing to invest or let the IT firms come in, provides equal opportunity to everyone. Hence, in the absence of any impediment, people everywhere can use Google or Facebook. Data is said to be the new oil and there are billions of such pieces across that have been stored and used for strengthening business processes and improving efficiency. Hence we have seen how simple technologies like Aadhaar in India have been quite remarkable, notwithstanding the misgivings of actually having a national registry of all citizens. How companies use pertinent information to further business is well known. This is when technology is used as a tool and no one can actually have any objections. Technology has been used to let the blind see things, historians discover the past and scientists pursue new strategies. But is there a darker side to this advancement?

The authors point out that the same technology has been used as ‘weapons’ to attack society and their essays on the issue are insightful. For example, the issue of privacy is always on our mind and there is almost constant debate around the world. We have reached a stage where it is possible for every action of ours to be tracked and deciphered by authorities, which can be a blessing as well as a curse. Terrorists have been caught by using data to find out their bearings and several possible attacks have been captured through such data. However, the misuse of the same has been seen where individual minds have been played with at the time of elections. Authoritarian regimes misuse such data to ensure that there can be no rivals in the political space.

Second, it has been observed that technology can very often be labour displacing, and this has happened gradually in some countries like India, but will be hastened as the speed of technology infusion increases. Jobs will be lost and skills cannot be re-learnt by existing employees as skill sets required are different.

Hence, less people will be required at the margin. In fact, this is where Smith and Browne point out that within countries there are several regions, especially in rural areas, which are cut off from technology and may never be able to leverage it. Here governments need to take action to ensure connectivity as, for instance, technology can transform the lives of the farming community through better spread of information on output, prices, climate, etc.

Third related to the above is the widespread use of AI, which is remarkable, but leaves society open to its misuse in the form of drones, which can even start wars. How do we check this misuse, as legal systems are not yet developed to tackle such instances and, more importantly, tracing the same is not possible unless the authorities have sophisticated systems?

At the international level, this can give rise to a different kind of show of strength akin to the Star Wars fiction we have seen, which in a way is scary. Also, as AI is based on algorithms and created by man, can there be biases deliberately created or those that come in naturally to distinguish across race and gender.

Hence, if AI is used to scan for best qualifications for a job, can there be biases which come in on gender or race, as facial recognition is one of the inputs that go into the exercise?

Fourth is cyber security, which is a major concern whenever technology is used by governments, companies or individuals. Hacking is always a possibility and financial systems can collapse if security is breached. This is often attempted by cyber terrorists who work to destabilise systems and breach databases so that everything is thrown out of order. It becomes necessary to keep building checks to ensure that systems are insulated from such attacks. But this has to be continuous, as hackers are always ahead of the curve.

Fifth, the authors also talk of social media and the misuse in the form of fake news and rumour mongering, which all of us know can be a major disruption as it can create chaos in any community.

The authors hence keep reiterating the need to retain humanism when using technology, but this is not practical as there will always be people and nations that will not follow the rules.

In fact, a debate often unresolved is the Snowden episode and whether the approach taken and revelations made are ethical or not. The jury is still out on this. Here they do spend some pages talking on regulation, as quite clearly there is need to regulate some aspects of technology.

Tools and Weapons is a very good book that brings to the fore the dangers that lurk as technology pervades our lives. It does pose questions for governments and technology companies as they need to find a balance. Countries like Denmark pioneered the concept of having a technology ambassador who liaisons with the corporate world to bring in harmony. This is an idea worth pursuing.

The writer is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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