5 lessons from the past for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Technology Eye | Feb. 23, 2017

Technologies develop in silos, with little connection and almost no lessons flowing from one to the other. One of the hopes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a wave of digital-age innovation, is that it will promote interconnectedness and the cross-fertilisation of ideas, so we won’t continue to make the mistakes of the past.

So what can Artificial Intelligence (AI) learn from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), or robotics from biotech, or gene editing from nanotech?

The way a technology is developed and introduced is a great place to start, so with that in mind, here are five key lessons from the introduction of nanotechnologies:

“We wish we’d spent less time worrying about the ‘ology’ and more trying to figure out what we really had to worry about and what we didn’t. We probably lost ten years because of this.” This is from a campaigner at the NGO Greenpeace talking about his work in nanotechnology governance and highlights one of the problems with the adulation of a particular ‘ology’ for the purposes of scientific kudos and investment.

The way funding works is that in order to get the money, scientists and businesses have to massively exaggerate the potential benefit of their ‘ology' - ‘an end to hunger’ ‘electricity too cheap to meter’, ‘the end of disease’ - the media love it, funders get excited and the money flows.

But this “ economy of promises ” is just another form of fake news, with potentially damaging repercussions:

New technologies, naturally, need new names, new metaphors to explain them and examples to demonstrate where they might lead and what problems they might solve. But the language chosen itself has repercussions.

Our increased access to information - fake or otherwise - often makes it difficult to see where real evidence of potential benefit or harm lies. It’s human nature, then, to fall back on our pre-conceived ideas to make sense of the information. Could the sheer quantity of conflicting information, coupled with the human propensity to cherry-pick data to prove our point, cloud our vision about the benefits and also make us miss early warnings about genuine problems with new technologies?

The hopes and fears of many rest on technologies of Fourth Industrial Revolution. Let’s ditch the "post-truth" approach to innovation, learn the lessons of the past and create solutions which deliver empowerment and prosperity for us all.

This was produced by Hilary Sutcliffe of SocietyInside in consultation with some members of the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology. She now serves on the Global Future Council on Human Rights.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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