Smart technology, smarter users - Fr Joe Borg

This must have been a very good week for technology buffs. The annual Consumer Electronics Show was held in Las Vegas. It could be described as the show of the ‘smart this’ and ‘smart the other’. There were smart TVs, smart city technology, smart cars and, believe it or not, even smart underwear!

At the show, a TV that rolls up like wrapping paper competed with ‘The Wall’ which is a monster-sized TV designed to transform an entire wall of your house into a screen but which, at the same time, can become whatever size you’d like it to be. Robots and digital personal assistants were everywhere; and they are becoming more intelligent by the minute. One could find anything from pet robots to companion robots with ‘which’ (or should I write ‘whom’?) one could form some kind of relationship.

Smart homes with features that do for you all sorts of things – order your shopping, supply your beer, inform you of the best deals in town, prepare gourmet meals – were there in abundance. Self-driving cars and the driver-assisted or ‘smart’ technologies inside them were impressive. Entertainment was provided by the Stripper robots who performed at the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club.

It is true that we have moved forward a lot since Moses’s technology on Mount Sinai was just two stone tablets on which he jotted down one the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the existence of that particular kind of technology was beneficial. I suspect that had he had with him the kind of technology exhibited in Las Vegas, it would have been very easy for him to come up with more than Ten Commandments.

We are all awed by the wonders of technology and many just guzzle in amazement stories about new discoveries. Others are sceptical if not technophobic. Both approaches are defective. A positively critical and discerning attitude is probably the right way to go about it.

Philip Larrey in his book Connected World. From Automated Work to Virtual Wars: The Future, By Those Who Are Shaping It takes such an attitude. I recently chaired a discussion about this book which was held under the auspices of the President of the Republic at San Anton Palace.

Had Moses had with him the kind of technology exhibited in Las Vegas, it would have been very easy for him to come up with more than Ten Commandments

Larrey tries to explore the digital revolution enveloping us and its effects by talking with people in the industry, asking them about the effects of the new digital revolution in their specific fields. The most common questions he asked should interest us as their answers map our present and future. How can digital technology enhance or degrade our dignity as human beings? This elicits subsidiary questions: How can we make sure that every single human person is at the centre of this revolution and its beneficiary? How can the digital divide be bridged? How can we use digital technology to prepare a better world for our future generations?

The change is enormous and it is affecting us directly as well as every sector of society.

I do not share the position put forward by Carlo d’Asaro Biondo, the president of Google for Europe, Middle East and Africa, who was one of the speakers at the seminar and one of those interviewed for the book. He believes that technology is neither good nor bad.

“It’s how you use the technology, for what purposes and in accordance with such principles that matters.”

This is a very common position. I side with members of the Toronto School and others who believe that technology affects us independently of its use. McLuhan quotes a Chinese sage who says that a man who uses a machine will develop a heart like a machine. Carpenter says that we resemble the technology we use. Digital technology as a technology is challenging, for example, even the concept of reality itself. Is it a physical (i.e. corporeal) or virtual or augmented reality which is most important?

Internet banking and other online services are fantastic but when a software engineer told Larrey that he has never used it as he understands how easy it is to compromise financial systems, should not one be cautious of new technology in general? I for one would find it very difficult to live without my smartphone. But then you read a comment by Bill Shores, one of the engineers working for Motorola, who gave us the first cell phone back in the 1980s, that he would like to dis-invent the cell phone. Is not that a challenging statement?

Comments that make us scared or enthusiastic about technology abound in the book though the line taken is that we should not fear new technology. I totally agree. A lot depends as well on the use we make of the technology available. The future will be bright if besides smart gadgets there are smarter users.

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