What emerging technologies are the most dangerous?

For those who like to think in a doomsday way, technology is bound to bring disaster to civilization. Admittedly, we may never see babies born through CRISPR gene-editing technology, out-of-control self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence that wants to kill humans.

As technology accelerates, in the unlikely event that day really comes, things could be far beyond our imagination. But at the same time, there’s a question worth pondering: What are the most dangerous emerging technologies? Let’s take a look at the insights of the experts.

Zephyr Tichott (Associate Professor of Law, Fordham University)

Office monitoring. This technology creates serious information asymmetries, allowing employers to spy on their employees like lab mice, further exacerbating already bad superior-subordinate relationships. Employers know how to stimulate workers to work in unhealthy ways and how to squeeze more value for less. This allows them to exclude dissidents and also to treat divisive employees differently. This technology is now ubiquitous in the workplace, and if left unchecked, it can quickly become rampant.

Michael Littleman (Professor of Computer Science, Brown University)

In the 2021 AI100 report, there is a chapter that describes what are the most pressing threats that AI currently poses to us. The 17-member team of experts believes that while the application of AI systems in the real world can benefit humanity, the risk of misuse, overuse, and abuse will also increase as its application expands.

The expert team’s biggest concern about AI is the so-called “technological solvism,” the mentality of “thinking that a technology like AI can be used to solve any problem.” Many people believe that the decisions made by AI are objectively neutral and impartial, but the results of these decisions may be improperly applied, or they may be based on historical biases and even explicit discrimination. If the data or algorithms for interpreting it are not transparent enough, the public may be kept in the dark about how these decisions will affect their lives.

AI systems are already being used to post disinformation online, so they are likely to pose a threat to democracy and are being used as a tool to spread fascism. In addition, if the human factors in artificial intelligence are not fully considered, it will lead to people oscillating back and forth between “distrusting AI systems” and “over-relying on these systems”. Artificial intelligence algorithms also play a role in decision-making involving medical issues such as organ allocation and vaccines, which are likely to lead to life-or-death consequences.

If in the event of a problem, the individual or organization responsible for the effectiveness of the system can assume primary responsibility, the dangers of AI may be mitigated. Involving all stakeholders, while greatly slowing down AI’s ability to solve difficult problems, is an indispensable step because the negative consequences of technology abuse are too severe. Technologists, like the medical profession, should also adhere to the principle of “no harm”.

David Shamwell Jones (Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard University)

As for who can afford the title of “most dangerous emerging technology,” there are clearly many candidates. For example, gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR are not necessarily as powerful as proponents claim but have the potential to wreak havoc. In addition, social media has shown the power to cause widespread harm. But what worries me the most is the large-scale application of facial recognition technology in the field of surveillance. In many ways, this technology is an important social asset. For example, face recognition can improve transaction efficiency, without the need to show an ID card or boarding pass when boarding a plane, and you can also directly brush your face to pay when buying something in the store. Face recognition can also strengthen social security and make it easier to find and arrest criminals.

So where is the danger of this technology? First of all, our every move will no longer be private, and someone will always know where we are and where we have been. Even if this personal information is not misused, the loss of a sense of privacy and anonymity can be uncomfortable. There is also the issue of misuse of information, and the risk is real. Anyone with access to this information is likely to use it for any unlawful purpose. From psychologically twisted suitors to government departments, it’s possible to spy on where we go and who we see and even predict our next move. And I suspect that the harm of this technology may be far beyond our imagination.

Ryan Caro (Professor of Law, University of Washington)

Ryan Caro believes that the most dangerous information technology is quantum computers. Aside from cryptographic cracking, the dangers of quantum computing are nothing new. As early as the supercomputer era, the threat of quantum computing to personal privacy has accelerated. With enough data and processing power, today’s computer systems are increasingly capable of crawling private information. The worry is that with quantum computing technology, both governments and businesses will become “Sherlock Holmes,” guessing all our secrets from publicly available information.

Amy Weber (CEO, Future Today Institute, a prospect, trend, and scenario planning firm)

The most dangerous new technology should be biology, or more accurately, synthetic biology. The goal of this technique is only one: to write entirely new (or better) genetic codes from cells. Synthetic biology uses engineering, artificial intelligence, genetics, and chemical methods to redesign biological body parts or organisms to enhance specific capabilities or create new functions. Using a range of the latest synthetic biology techniques, we can not only read and edit DNA codes but also write new ones. This means that we will soon be able to program organisms as if they were microcomputers.

Synthetic biology allows us to turn DNA sequences into software tools, just like Word, except that the object of editing is DNA encoding. After researchers have written or edited DNA according to their own ideas, new DNA molecules can be “printed” out of thin air with the help of technologies such as 3D printers. This DNA synthesis technology is advancing rapidly. Today’s technology has been able to routinely print strands of DNA containing thousands of base pairs, which can be used to establish new cellular metabolic pathways, even enough to form a complete cellular genome.

What problems could this cause? It won’t be long before we can write the genome of any virus. This idea seems scary when it comes to the coronavirus, but the virus is not necessarily all bad. In fact, viruses are just containers for genetic code. In the future, we may be able to create viruses that are beneficial to the human body and used to treat specific diseases such as cancer.

Synthetic biology will play an important role in the climate crisis and food and water shortages. It will reduce our dependence on animal proteins and eventually enable the customization of medicines, and people’s bodies will become their own “pharmacies.”

But synthetic biology is the most dangerous emerging technology, not because of science itself, but because of us humans. This requires us to challenge existing mental models, ask a series of complex and difficult questions, and have a rational discussion about the origin of life, otherwise, we will create risks and miss opportunities. Over the next 10 years, we’ll make the most of data, evidence, and the spirit of science to make key decisions, such as which new viruses to create that are specific to treat diseases, what concepts of genetic privacy are, and who owns “organisms.” Regulators also need to determine how companies can profit from manually editing cells and what processes need to be followed to preserve synthetic organisms in the lab.

We ourselves also play an important role in synthetic biology. If you could re-edit your body, what choice would you make? Wouldn’t it bother you if you could edit it for your future children? If eating synthetic organisms could mitigate climate change, would you accept it? Synthetic biology will be the most powerful and sustainable manufacturing platform ever built by mankind. We are now on the cusp of this industrial revolution.

Jaylen van den Hoven (Professor of Ethics and Technology, Delft University of Technology)

I think the most dangerous technologies are social or cognitive technologies that prevent people from understanding the world and the needs of others. These technologies can easily lead to the extinction of humanity, making people selfish and narcissistic, and unconcerned about others. These technologies blind us like fog machines, blinding us to the human community and human responsibility. There is absolutely no faith in these technologies. The people who develop them are either used as tools by others, or extremely naïve, or accomplices, or masters of forgeries, resolutely denying all the sufferings that humanity may encounter in the future.

So I think these digital technologies that fuel cognitive confusion are the biggest threats we face. The dangers of these technologies can easily be obscured or denied, so most people don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. At the same time, other technologies that can truly benefit humanity will be stigmatized. Tyrants and villains are praised, but heroes and saviors are wantonly smeared.

Some people have not given up on fighting climate change, finding ways to fight the epidemic, preventing hospitals from using artificial intelligence for triage, exposing deep scams, and so on. But these people now have difficulty discerning what is the truth and which practices are morally acceptable. Most people, I am afraid, have long since given up the search for the truth and become docile and complacent.

Sid Johnson (Associate Professor of Bioethics and Anthropology, Upstate State Medical University, New York)

Xenotransplantation (that is, the transplantation of organs and tissues from one animal into another) has long been seen as one of the solutions to the shortage of transplanted organs. There are thousands of people who are waiting for life-saving organs, and some people end up waiting for a long time and dying in the process. From the 1960s to the 1990s, researchers made countless attempts to transplant primate organs into humans. But so far, no patient has survived after receiving the xeno organ. Some people live only a few hours, and some people persist in living for a few weeks, one of the reasons is that the immune system produces rejection of new organs, even terrible ultra-acute rejection.

The greater the difference between species, the greater the risk of rejection, as in humans and pigs, after all, the evolutionary differences between the two species are 80 million years apart. But pigs are currently regarded as an ideal source of organs, because of the low difficulty of raising, the size of the organs suitable for human use, and the number of pigs slaughtered each year reaches hundreds of millions, so there does not seem to be much ethical problem in killing them for organs.

Genetic similarities between primates and humans increase the risk of zoonotic infection. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has explicitly banned the use of primate organs for xenotransplantation. But pigs can also be infected with viruses similar to humans and can also transmit zoonotic diseases. In 1998 and 1999, there was an outbreak of viral encephalitis caused by pig-borne Nipah virus in pig farmers in Malaysia, resulting in 100 deaths and the culling of more than 1 million pigs.

COVID-19 is also a zoonotic disease that may have spanned several species before eventually spreading to humans, triggering a global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives, dealing a severe blow to the health care system, and triggering a series of global socio-economic upheavals. We have found COVID-19 in dogs, cats, ferrets, chimpanzees, gorillas, otters, big cats, farmed minks in Europe, and wild white-tailed deer in the United States.

The risk of zoonotic transmission through xenotransplantation is a serious topic, and many organizations recommend lifelong observation of organ recipients, their close contacts, and healthcare workers involved in the transplant process. The purpose of observation is not to protect the organ recipients themselves, but for public health reasons. Therefore, xenografting is an extremely dangerous emerging technology. In the worst-case scenario, another global pandemic could erupt with disastrous consequences.

In addition to xenotransplantation, there are other solutions to organ shortages, and some are already available for application, such as increasing the number of human donors. Others are under development (e.g., in vitro cultivation of human organs, use of 3D bioprinting technology to achieve in vivo repair and regeneration of damaged organs, etc.). None of these technologies poses a risk of a global pandemic. After decades of research and countless failures, there are still many doubts about xenotransplantation technology. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is in its third year, the risk of disease transmission from xenotransplantation has become a key issue, and its risk cannot be overestimated.

Johanna Bryson (Professor of Ethics and Technology at the Herti School of Administration, Berlin)

I think the most dangerous emerging technologies are actually various forms of national governance. We already have a good understanding of social control. Some countries use this information primarily with good intentions, while others use it to oppress and manipulate minorities and even weaken the power of the majority, either way, with brutal results. We should also be aware that such atrocities also include “cultural genocide”, which erases all records and histories left by people and denies the existence and identity of their ancestors. This practice, while not necessarily killing these people, would also severely undermine their ability to thrive.

The only way to solve these problems is to innovate forms of governance, encourage cooperative behavior, and respect fundamental rights. Many technologies actually have “dual uses.” We cannot choose to lie flat and think that the solution is not in our control. At any social level, political awareness and engagement are important. And interestingly, our use of tools like social media has raised people’s political awareness to a great extent. So I think there’s still hope, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

Elizabeth Hilter (Professor of Philosophy, Illinois Institute of Technology)

The most dangerous emerging technology should be some kind of technology that can be freed from human control and regulation. Technology doesn’t magically appear out of thin air, and it’s not dangerous in itself; the danger lies in the humans who design, modify, and deploy them.

While there’s a lot of speculation that there could be super-AI in the future, dominating and dominating humans, I think there are many more practical ways for emerging technologies to escape human control.

For example, if the principles of technology are not transparent enough, it is easy to get out of our control. In addition, manufacturers or companies may misrepresent the facts or conceal the effects of technology from the public.

Human emotional investment can also lead to a loss of control over technology. The more we interact with technology, the more we align with our intuition and emotions, the easier it is to master the technology. Therefore, humanoid robots often imitate the way people interact with each other. However, if human characteristics such as technological emotions are endowed, it may lead to unilateral emotional investment by humans, so that the interaction between humans and technology is no longer receptively dominated, but driven by emotional factors. In this type of interaction, humans will become the more vulnerable party.