“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Those were the words spoken by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. The world in 1945 was nearing the end of six years of total war. This is when a completely new technology was unleashed. This type of weapon class emerged marked a complete shift. With the ability to unleash the power of the atom, war and politics would change forever.
The two main protagonists in the post-war era were the United States and the USSR. They would quickly build up their arsenal but also struggle with how to handle these new weapons. There were no norms and conventions around how to use this new technology.
What ensued in the following two decades after 1945 is mostly terrifying. Both countries had hawks in their military which argued for pre-emptive attacks on the other side. The rationale was both logical and insane at the same time; wipe out the other side before they do the same thing to us.
What’s also interesting is the decision on how to handle this power. There were many different nuanced issues which ensued in the following years. The US president was granted sole arbiter in the use of their nuclear arsenal which centralized power in one single person. Some physicists argued to share atomic secrets with the Soviet Union in order to build trust. Some people tried to put the genie back in the bottle which was impossible.
I can’t help but to draw a parallel with the advent of a connected global population. There is simply no precedent and predetermined rules for an era where everyone is carrying a supercomputer in their pockets.
Just like the nuclear challenge, this is a deeply multifaceted issue where there are many complex questions.
What does user privacy really mean?
When you use your map app, you are sharing your location information every second of the day to a private corporation. At the same time, you benefit from the application every time you use it. This a simplistic example of a much more complex issue. The balance between user privacy and benefit is not well understood. To make matters worse, privacy tends to get lumped into the debate as well.
How should regulation work?
It’s become quite apparent that applying 20th century regulation to current antitrust issues won’t work. Well intentioned legislation often has the side effect of entrenching incumbents.
This chart below highlights the online ad market share of Google and Facebook in Europe.
When GDPR went into effect, lawmakers in Europe hailed it as a win for competition when in fact the opposite happened. Strong first party data will outclass third party data in terms of performance. The clear winners will be the two companies that own that information. What has since happened is that smaller ad networks could no longer compete. Furthermore, incumbents have more resources to adopt to the new rules whereas the smaller players don’t. I don’t envy the job of regulators that have to take network effects into account.
Should algorithms be allowed to make life or death decisions?
A lot of ink has been written on how self-driving cars will have to consciously take lives in the future. Does the car swerve to avoid a family while killing its older driver? While I do believe this is an important question. The bigger question is how tools made for death will change the face of combat. Drones can already hit targets from the sky while its pilots are located on the other side of the world. What happens when algorithms take the helm and start pressing the kill button? The future of warfare just like everywhere else in society will be increasingly automated. Will it be more moral to be killed by a smart robot?
What is the future of censorship?
Access to physical media is in decline. Sure, I own a turntable but I would not give it up for my Spotify playlists. I’d like to know who will decide what gets censored and for what reason on these platforms. For instance, there’s a classic episode of Seinfeld called Puerto Rico day. Jerry and Kramer are stuck in traffic during a Puerto Rican parade. Accidently, Kramer lights the Puerto Rican flag on fire. Hilarity ensues as the crowd believes he did it on purpose. When you watch that episode today on a streaming service, you will not find that scene. Some people might find it offensive but how will we decide what is appropriate and to whom?
These are important questions that are still barely understood. The more we dig, newer questions keep arising. That’s why it’s important that each question be well unpacked before we can move forward.
At the dawn of the atomic age, an important question was being asked, is there an ethical way to fight a nuclear war? Seventy years later, as we embark upon a new world, we’re still asking questions with no easy answers.