Compassionate Computing: David Polgar Promotes Humanities-based Technology Development
If you saw a video that appeared to show President Donald Trump announcing the United States had just launched nuclear missiles at North Korea, how would you (or Kim Jong-un) know if it was authentic? When you answer the phone, how do you know you’re not speaking with a bot that can replicate natural human voice pauses and filler words to make the conversation seem “real”? Do you want to “live” forever as a digital avatar?
David Polgar, a tech ethics authority, posed these intriguing and pertinent questions at the March 29 Fridays at Findlay leadership breakfast. Technology, he explained, has become so advanced, that people are not keeping up with the ethical conundrums it is increasingly presenting. His solution is to advocate for more humanity-based consideration pertaining to technology creation and use.
“The tech we’ve created and are creating in the future doesn’t offer clear-cut answers as to what we should do and how it impacts us,” said the founder of All Tech is Human. “My main argument is we need to inject more thoughtfulness into how we create and implement technologies.”
Polgar used the movie “Jurassic Park” as an analogy: just because something can be created doesn’t always mean it should, argued the mathematician in the film. Companies therefore have a responsibility to think critically and ask questions about potential consequences related to products they’re developing, Polgar said. To do this, diversity must be a tech product analysis hallmark. Different groups of people with different ideas and backgrounds will provide the most varied insight, he explained.
“We’re not currently creating a system whereby ideas are challenged in a way that we’re shining a light on the blind spots,” Polgar said. “We need to showcase what could potentially go wrong” alongside tech’s positive purposes, he maintained.
The questions first posed here are based on technology that is already publicly available. Polgar used those examples to help the audience contemplate problem areas. Thanks to video enhancement tools that allow blending of different clips and voiceovers, images that don’t reflect physical reality are already being used to influence and incite. Google Duplex’s “virtual assistant” program makes calls to schedule routine appointments with anyone from a plumber to a therapist. Etermine’s website states it “preserves your most important thoughts, stories, and memories for eternity” by using an algorithm that projects those to others for interactions with the living.
Polgar thinks technology that has the potential to start a world war should be evaluated or at least be made obvious, asserts that all of us would want to know up front if we are speaking over the phone with a bot or an actual human, and wonders how eternal life in the digital realm would affect survivors’ grieving and recovery process.
Also, he points out technology that attempts to predict what you’re going to say, type, or buy affects agency, and therefore influences human authenticity, governance, emotion, and uniqueness. Would you have bought that book if Amazon hadn’t suggested it? Were you really going to respond, “have a nice day” at the end of that email?
Polgar claims the outlook is not hopeless, however. “Each one of us plays an essential role and can impact the larger conversation that is happening,” he said. “We as users, as digital citizens, as active citizens in a political process, have the ability to alter how products are made and regulated. We need to start shifting our leadership in how we create and consume. We need to think of ourselves less as a passive consumer and more as an active participant who is cognizant of how our behavior affects other people.”
After his talk, Polgar said tech giants are beginning to understand the importance of human needs when it comes to product development and use, which will, in turn, create jobs for those with liberal arts backgrounds who have been told for years that their expertise is monetarily and philosophically worth less than, say, those with computer science knowledge. Tech companies “are hiring English majors,” Polgar said. Workers with a combination of technology and liberal arts skills will increasingly be valued in the professional world, he added.