November 29, 2016
How Technology Amplifies Evil
by Chunka Mui
A new book shows that the internet’s capacity for good is matched only by its capacity to empower evil.
Marvin Minsky, the cognitive scientist and cofounder of the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory, used to say, “You don’t really understand something if you only understand it one way.” This is especially important to remember if you’re trying to understand the potential of information technology, one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history.
Many books have been written about the internet and other emerging technologies as a force for good. In a gripping new book, Mike Dover is depressingly thorough at showing us that the internet’s capacity for good is matched only by its capacity to empower evil.
In Dante’s Infinite Monkeys: Technology Meets the Seven Deadly Sins, Dover writes about how “the internet, and technology in general, have provided new ways for wrath, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy and greed to insert themselves into our lives.” He dives deeply into the worst of humanity that technology can serve up.
See also: Technology and the Economic Divide
In this interview, Dover and I discuss how technology is amplifying evil—and the implications for consumers, inventors, innovators and policy makers.
Chunka Mui: Why write a book about evil?
Mike Dover: I’ve spent a significant part of my career working at a think tank that mostly studied the impact of technology on business and society. Generally our sponsors were interested in how they could leverage technology to improve profits or in the case of governments how to improve life for citizens. While our clients were interested in dangers and pitfalls, most of what we produced focused on the positives.
This project gave me some balance and license to really dig into the dark stuff.
Mui: Your book offers compelling evidence that bad actors are harnessing technology to commit every deadly sin. From a personal standpoint, what dangers that could directly affect you and your loved ones worry you the most?
Dover: Greed will directly impact regular people in the developed world. The division between rich and poor will grow as more jobs get automated. Even with a guaranteed minimum income, a society with a small trillionaire elite and a massive underclass will be devastating to our idea of society. In the case that a guaranteed income, emboldened by laboratory-created protein, inexpensive 3-D-printed goods and rich immersive entertainment made life carefree, many people in our society require a vocation to feel useful.
Mui: What do you do to safeguard yourselves against those dangers?
Dover: A combination of things: Look for work that is less susceptible to robot replacement, and constantly retrain and reinvent yourself. Also, build parts of your identity that are not reliant on your profession. Write poetry, even if it is bad poetry.
Mui: You write that technological change can alter ethics and morality. Give us examples of things that we might consider “evil” today but acceptable in the future.
Dover: I point out in the book (although I am far from the first person to address it) that sexuality drives technological innovation. Beta was a better format than VHS, but the latter thrived because it embraced pornography. Same deal with video streaming, online payments, etc.
Sex with robots enhanced with AI and customized pharmaceuticals will be viewed as recreation rather than perversion.
Mui: Some evils, however, are inherently evil. From a long-term, societal standpoint, what keeps you up at night?
Dover: Wrath—not as manifested through online bullying (although that certainly is troubling) but via technology-infused warfare. Biological weaponry at a molecular level can be incredibly devastating and does not require the resources of a superpower to develop. At the same time, using robots and AI as soldiers will have a huge ethical and philosophical impact.
Mui: Is there anything individuals can do against these broad threats, other than hunker down and hope that it doesn’t happen?
Dover: I touch on that in the final paragraph of each chapter, but some threats are easier to address than others. Certainly, people should realize that Wikileaks and its ilk can publish everything you type, and criminals will become more sophisticated at stealing from you. You need to more critical and more careful.
Mui: How should inventors of new technologies and applications think about the potential evil uses of their inventions?
Dover: Absolutely they should, although sometimes curiosity and human innovation can turn benign inventions evil. If a terrorist loaded up 20 drones with plastic explosives and flew them into a packed football stadium, at least some of them would detonate causing massive injury and loss of life. It’s hard to blame that on people who develop drone technology.
Mui: How should companies that can choose to commercialize such technologies, or not, think about the ethical implications of their business decisions?
Dover: Technology producers should operate ethically. As much as possible, they should think of safety and safeguards and work with authorities (where that makes sense) to address bad actors.
See also: How Technology Breaks Down Silos
Mui: What is the proper trade-off between forestalling evil before it is enabled versus, potentially, stifling innovation?
Dover: This is tricky because there is no trade-off that is acceptable to everyone, and the concept of evil (and certainly content standards) varies widely across jurisdictions. What is considered obscene by one culture is laughably innocuous in another.
Mui: What is the role of policy makers and regulators?
Dover: Two ways that policy makers can improve is to move faster and include a greater breadth of voices. If it takes a year to write legislation about mobile surveillance or the chemical composition of bath salts, then it will be obsolete before it can be enacted. And, please…if a Supreme Court justice has never used email, have his or her grandchild give a tutorial before ruling on online privacy.
Mui: Can you offer any hopeful parting thoughts?
Dover: Even in the face of evil, we can still be good. Technology offers great benefits, and knowing about evil can help us combat it.