IT, Telecom and Consumer Electronics Industries Must Create Ethicists Positions

Carl Weinschenk
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What Can Augmented Reality Do?

In the weekly roundup on Friday, I mentioned the personal information and security concerns of Google Glass and similar lower-profile products that are planned or already offered by other firms. Those worries also were discussed by Nick Pickles, the director of the privacy group Big Brother Watch, in this BBC piece over the weekend.

Another new technology in the news is the ability to “print” small objects over distance. The use of the term “print” is a misnomer. What really is happening is that the three-dimensional contours of the object are being sent from a generating machine to a receiving machine. There, those parameters are being used to replicate the object from a supply of plastic from which that device draws.

The problems: Google Glass will be able to record people without their consent or even knowledge and the objects being replicated can be parts of weapons.

Google Glass and replication technology point to an extremely important but less than obvious reality: Technology is moving so quickly that various elements of society – legislative/legal, religious, commercial and others – can’t fully weigh in on these potentially dangerous advances before they become available.

The Internet – by putting everything on the same network and pooling all the creativity looking to monetize it – changes everything. Consider the cable industry. For decades, cable operators – who are a very savvy bunch – would slowly roll out new offerings. They would test for technical stability, how the new offering impacted other services, gauge subscriber desires and determine the best way to market the new offering. Services would roll out among “friendly users” – i.e., employees – and move to increasingly larger pre-launch groups. Then, finally – assuming the market was proven – the new service would be unveiled. This methodical litany is replicated in other industries.

Then came the Internet. It’s needless to say that things happen faster. But lost in that sentence is the fact that not only is the speed increased, but the approach is transformed. The idea is to do it quickly and worry about the details later. Problems are fixed as they become evident rather than ferreted out before launch. Likewise, subtle marketing questions are hashed out and the answers implemented on the fly. Much of the information gathered during the traditional iterative steps simply is missed.

This is what is happening with the cases of Google Glass and replicable firearms. The bottom line is that the computer, IT and telecommunication sectors – and all the brilliant people working in them – are presenting society with a huge challenge: Decisions on what to do about the ability of bad guys to in essence fax each other guns or of a peeping tom to stream what he sees through a bedroom window must be made. The bad news is that they must be made after these technologies are available at the mall.

Some rudimentary guidelines exist. There are centuries of privacy laws on the books that could possibly rein in Google Glasses and similar devices. It is unclear, however, if these laws cover all aspects of such technology and whether they even apply.

Work also has been done on plastic weapons, though not those created through this futuristic process. Mashable says that the Undetectable Firearms Act seems to address the issue:

According to its text, it's illegal for anybody to "manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer or receive" a firearm that can't be detected once its grips, stocks and magazines are removed.

There are two problems, however: The law, which was renewed in 2003, is set to expire this year. Secondly, the technology – which already has created a working gun (though it broke after firing six shots, according to NBC) – already is inexpensive and, therefore, quite likely to be widely available quickly.

The advent of cloning and other mind-boggling technologies has elevated the status of medical ethicists. It is time for the telecom and IT industries to create equivalent positions. It is a virtual certainty that other technologies will emerge that are capable of doing other uncomfortable things. What must be addressed quickly is the lack of a systematic way to vet such technology.

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