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Jim Harding: Global threats can be linked to runaway technology

Runaway technology represents an existential threat to humanity on many fronts and needs to be reined in.

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Before he died, renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned of major threats to humanity: climate change, nuclear war and artificial intelligence (AI). All involve glaring institutionalized disregard for cumulative impacts of runaway technology.

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These threats aren’t inevitable from scientific progress; so-called “genies in the bottle.” Science has many possible outcomes, and we have systematically failed to exert discerning controls over applications.

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Endless use of fossil fuel technology has brought catastrophic climate change. Proliferation of nuclear technology, and the mindless explosion of digital technology, have unleashed additional threats.

The alternative to naïve “technological determinism” is not anti-technology, but appropriate technology. Without this shift, we will continue to react and crisis-manage. We see this everywhere, including, now, with satellite technology.

We see the devastating impacts of runaway plastic and chemical manufacturing. Can we ever get the micro-plastics and toxic wastes out of the web of life?  Mindless asbestos use in construction left a carcinogenic legacy, killing 250,000 year after year.

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Antibiotic resistance from runaway pharmaceutics is already killing more than a million annually. Even runaway, fast-food technology is creating a global obesity-cardiac crisis.

The implications of runaway technology are obscured by customary thinking. Collective health threats from the inequality, poverty and dependencies that proliferate fast-food consumption cannot be addressed by “fat phobia.”

The approach needed is not identity-oriented, but policy action-oriented, such as a total, global ban on all trans-fats.

Nor can the serious threat posed by ghost guns — handguns cheaply made from 3-D printers — be addressed by “gun rights.” Even “passenger rights” obscure the vulnerability of global transportation from ever more, AI-dependent computerization, facing increasingly extreme climate.

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The dangers are obscured by a misleading ideology of “scientism.” Anti-vaxxers hold to an erroneous view of scientific method, while simplistically “pro-science” political-economic decision-makers typically think regulating technology threatens the bottom line.

Of course, we should be cautious about the application of MRNA technology, and not assume, in utopian fashion, that fusion energy will be a panacea for decarbonization. Any prospect of this becoming cost-effective, Appropriate Technology, is decades away.

Centuries of industrialization, justified by colonial beliefs in progress, which were stunningly ignorant about how nature works, have shaped how we depict science and technology. The continuing shift of universities towards corporate partnerships hasn’t helped. (Nor has “technological cheating,” which has evolved from “cut and paste” to AI essays.)

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Graduates of science education are increasingly technicians, potential entrepreneurs, without much knowledge about the history, philosophy, or social organization of science. They are primed to perpetuate runaway technology.

The answer is not embracing cynical, anti-science conspiracies, but re-evaluating how science and technology are taught, reported, and operate. Our governments, presently, seem incapable or unwilling to do this.

It is astonishing, in our DNA-tracking era, that evolutionary science is still disputed. Huge religious congregations are confidently told that humans and dinosaurs recently cohabited the earth because this can be “inferred” from God-given scripture.

Meanwhile, unregulated Big Tech, with its feudal-like barons, is allowed to disrupt cognitive functioning and mental health of upcoming generations.

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Free speech means that, regardless of impacts, the oligarchs should be free to determine how their private, profitable media is used. We clearly now have runaway disinformation technology.

The overriding challenge is to get public understanding, politics and elections to steer society towards more control of runaway technology.

Hawking was very nervous about runaway climate change, where we could lose our capacity to intervene. Governments in even so-called developed countries may not be able to keep up with infrastructure crisis-management.

There are abundant signs of the unfolding scenario of threats about which Hawking warned.

Some Canadian premiers are more concerned about accelerating economic spinoffs from electric car/rare earth elements than in restoring biodiversity, while actually reducing carbon emissions.

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Meanwhile, many of us are looking over our shoulder, worrying that, if cornered, Putin may resort to nuclear weapons. Many carry on with their self-centred “smart” technology, seemingly oblivious to the AI that is operating behind the scenes.  

Beholden to technological determinism, propped up with a simplistic scientism, is not going to help. If there is to be any hope of reducing our self-made threats, runaway technology simply must be reined in.

Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies and one of his main areas of research and teaching has been the human context of science and technology.

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With Files from the Edmonton Journal and the Montreal Gazette

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