LANSING, Mich. — There is truly no telling where advancing technology could take us — at least that was the message delivered to guests at the Michigan Digital Government Summit Tuesday afternoon.
From the perspective of Roger Duncan, a research fellow with the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, the potential for technological advances seem limited only by our willingness to pursue them.
But with every step forward we take, the positives of participation must be carefully weighed against the potential issues associated with it. As Duncan and others in his field see it, nanotechnology and the ability to build smaller, smarter, embeddable computers will bring both new challenges and questions for users — and society as a whole.
While the microscopic technology could bring us houses that can literally restructure themselves, it also could enable biometric applications, raising questions as basic as employment rights for altered and unaltered people.
“Implants are the next step, and we’re not that far away from them. But it raises an issue. There will be some people who want to go that far and others who don’t,” he said. “How far are we going to develop classes? Are we going to have classes of enhanced and unenhanced people? Are there going to be job descriptions that require a computer enhancement and technology to perform the job?”
The ability to build from the ground up with tools like 3-D printers and the production of new materials at the atomic level will result in higher quality products, cost savings and seemingly unbounded potential.
Duncan didn’t limit his talk to speculation about tiny tech. He also touched on the realities of the vastly expanding Internet of Things (IoT) and where we will undoubtedly find ourselves in the coming years.
The increasing connectivity between our homes, cars and even our persons will allow for streamlined, decentralized smart power grids and ultimately more a more efficient world, Duncan said.
Refrigerators communicating with toasters is no longer the stuff of sci-fi novels, but Duncan contends we will see even more advanced communication and action from our appliances and homes.
He warns that while we will use these tools to simplify our daily lives, we will also inherently sacrifice some level of privacy as the connected world around us learns more about our personal preferences.
“The Internet is going to know where you are, what you’re doing," he said, "and through predictive analysis, it will know what you’re going to do probably better than you do. The bottom line is, in the future, you will not need to access the Internet; the Internet will be accessing you. If that sounds a little creepy, it’s only because it is a little creepy.”
In tandem with nanotechnology and the ability for machines to “learn,” Duncan said robotics will continue to advance to unprecedented levels, spurring the need for humans to evaluate their relationship with machines.
While machines are now used as a means of enhancing our capabilities, the future could see complete automation of certain jobs and roles in society.
The transportation sector was among the first to witness robotic automation with developing technology like the driverless car, Duncan said. He predicts similar technologies will soon be implemented in the buildings we live and work in.
To a certain extent, this has already begun with things like the Nest thermostat, which monitors the habits of users to establish a predictive, automated profile.
But automation will come at a cost to humans, warns Duncan: According to an Oxford study, he said, an estimated 47 percent of jobs will be affected by an increasingly robotic workforce.
While the expert said machines and blossoming technology are far from the adversarial predictions made by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Tesla’s Elon Musk earlier this year, the pace of progress could eventually lead to seemingly conscious machines with little use for their human counterparts.
“I have chosen my words carefully here, I am not saying that I think machines will become conscious. I have no way of knowing if a machine ever becomes conscious, the same way I can’t know if any other human experiences consciousness the way I experience it. But what I am saying is that more and more we have designed our technology in such a way that we can interact with our technology as if it were sentient.”
Until that distant point, Duncan has high hopes for the IT sector, which he sees as the likely stewards of the digital world.
“So what is the role of IT in this?” he said. "What happens when everything around you is smart and everything is connected and everything is interacting with you? What happens is everything becomes an IT problem.”
His solution is far from turning our backs to technology. He advocates instead for self-control on the part of participants and likens “seductive technology” to an addictive drug.
For those in IT, he points to new skills that will likely change the way business is done on a daily basis. Not only will IT workers need to communicate with one another, but they will undoubtedly communicate directly with seemingly sentient machines as well.