People often wax-poetic about the past, about the era when people spent more time chatting in person than on the phone and sent letters rather than email, justifying bygone habits and approaches and ignoring the fact that technological progress is, in many cases, an antidote and consequence of our past failures. Maybe it’s time we took a hard look at ourselves before indicting technology as a scourge on humanity?
We Scapegoat Technology for our Mistakes
The common reprisals against technological innovation are that it dehumanizes and disconnects us, or that it stupefies us. People will harp on any occurrence to prove their point, like the first fatal crash involving a self-driving Tesla car. Instantly the headlines swarmed with triumph as Luddites pointed fingers and reveled in their prophecy fulfilled.
To their chagrin, a closer inspection revealed how human error was the cause of the accident rather than technology. In fact, 90% of road accidents are the result of human error.
Human error also accounts for many online blunders.
Earlier this year, Microsoft launched an artificial intelligence chatbot on Twitter named Tay. Tay was created to speak like a teenage girl who learns from real-world conversations, picking up slang and updates from trending topics. Tay demonstrated an impressive capability to mimic human language and produce meaningful phrases.
Evidently, Tay was a little too human for our taste. She quickly put a fateful mirror to our online behavior. In merely 24 hours, Tay had learned a colorful array of racist, offensive and hurtful tweets from its human friends. Tay was not a villain: she was a vessel. She collected all that we are, and showed us more than we could bear.
At yet another online tribunal, Facebook was accused of left-wing bias in their Trending section. Apparently, Trending’s human editors admitted to suppressing conservative news stories. To eliminate this issue entirely, the social media giant replaced the human editors with an algorithm that objectively curates articles based on unbiased variables, such as shares, likes, and comments.
This set Luddites on a funeral march, lamenting the loss of yet another human job and proclaiming our submission to the technological overlord, they rejected Facebook’s decision. What these detractors fail to realize is how technology picks up where we leave off and protects us against our inborn biases.
Technology Is an Antidote to our Deepest Flaws
Just imagine curating 1.7 billion Facebook articles on a near daily basis. Those editors must have been stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed by default. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologist have demonstrated that mental exhaustion hinders our brains’ ability to suppress bias and prejudice. In a state of cognitive fatigue we often opt for what we accept and ignore what we reject. It’s simply easier to agree than to disagree.
Believe it or not, holding opposing views in the mind is measurably uncomfortable. In an effort to avoid discomfort, we tend to self-select for content we already agree with. Readers do the same. This, however, is a dangerous habit with far-reaching repercussions for discourse, politics, social harmony, and much more.
Corporate Practices May Deepen Our Biases
The broader question there is about the push toward personalization. To increase profits and enhance the customer experience, companies across the board are striving to give customers exactly what we want, a dangerous proposition when you consider how biased our preferences are, and how they sustain rifts, differences, and blind us to new ways of thinking. In that way, by not allowing technology to take the reins on certain inherently biased tasks, we may be sowing the seeds of our own discord and prejudice.
The common sense view on technology isn’t zero-sum; we don’t have to choose between rocks and robots. Man and machine complement each other. And in those cases when machine supersedes man, we should self-analyze to determine whether an unbiased, objective, and untiring tool is preferable to all the flaws that it precludes.
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