Technologies are not our gods; they are our tools, created to serve people, to make life better, safer, more pleasant
In 2018, Digitization, Artificial Intelligence, Genetic Engineering, Human Enhancement and a few other technological buzzwords - repeatedly prominent in the media - have had a decisive effect on discussions on further developments in technology and society.
The spectrum of opinions ranges from, at one end, blissful utopias where technology enables paradisiacal states, while at the other, dystopian scenarios portray humankind suffering under the yoke of the unfettered products of its technological developments.
As in all such cases, the truth lies between the two extremes. No matter what specific technology is involved, at least this much can be said: nothing just happens to us, none of this is natural. And above all, technologies are not our gods; they are our tools, created to serve people, to make life better, safer, more pleasant.
This also means that technologies only dominate us and our lives insofar as we allow them to. For example, the artificial intelligences currently under such intense discussion - doubtless superior to humans in such areas as pattern recognition, the numerical solution of complex tasks or the continuous, long term monitoring of measured values - will only take such decisions that we delegate to them. This is the point where we have to consider carefully just how much autonomy we are willing to give up, what we gain by it, and what price we pay for it.
At first sight from this perspective, there is little reason for dystopian alarmism. Instead, what is called for is a rationally-based optimistic view that technologies will help us solve the pressing problems of an ever-increasing global population, of the changing climate and of human intervention in ecosystems.
At the same time, however, it is absolutely clear that every new development also involves negative aspects that have to be recognized and evaluated even before they occur. It turns out that precisely the “new” technologies hold the potential for achieving global effects in a relatively short time. The uncontrolled release of nanoparticles into the environment or the alteration of evolution through germ line intervention could have significant consequences which may indeed threaten our very existence.
Here again, one basic remark stands out: there is no natural masterplan which delimits our development of a particular technology. We ought to (must!) take the time to think about the effects of new developments and to establish mechanisms that counteract their negative side effects. Man’s wellbeing can be the only yardstick for this, and that on a global scale. Following Kant, a categorically imperative formulation would be: Only ever develop those technologies that you would also like others to be able to develop.
This will not completely eliminate the risks, but at least the attempt to minimize them is worth every effort.
For more than 40 years, Fraunhofer INT has been working to deliver science-based statements on the development and impact of advanced technologies. As every year, we have tried to compile in this annual report an excerpt from our work, to give you an overview of the Institute’s extensive research portfolio.
While reading, I wish you plenty of pleasure and inspiration, and a good dose of optimism for your own look at the (technological) future.
Prof. Dr. Dr. Michael Lauster