Public policy must address technology’s impact

Bay Area News Group

Dramatic advances in science and technology are leading us into an unknown future with little citizen awareness, and a public policy framework that is behind the curve.

The advances go far beyond the expansion of the online world.

But let’s start with the fact that the privacy and security issues attendant to the online world are likely to get bigger and take newer forms as we employ the cloud to store and access data and software on the internet rather than our computing devices.

Big Data is expanding, and some entity of which you are not aware is capturing, aggregating, and processing an ever-higher volume, velocity, and variety of personal data for some purpose of which you are unaware.

We will engage in substantive conversation with our software (think Siri on steroids), while computing speeds go far beyond our present imagination. Our devices, whatever they may be, will become deeply immersed in the new “internet of things.” Devices will talk to each other aided by ubiquitous sensors and systems in our computers, phones, homes, cars and communities.

Efforts of the FBI to force Apple to access data on a terrorist’s iPhone – and Apple’s refusal – are tame compared to issues to come. The FBI based its request on a 1789 law, hardly an up-to-date framework for today’s questions of privacy and security.

Global digital connectivity frames a public policy issue we experience but may not grasp. In “The New Digital Age,” Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen write: “The vast majority of us increasingly will find ourselves living, working, and being governed in two worlds at once.” One will be virtual, the other physical. “Technology will soon be intertwined with every challenge in the world,” they write.

The digital world already is intertwined with advances in other areas of science and technology. Here are a few:

▪ Gene editing techniques hold the potential to remake species, including our own. The policy question is, should we, not can we?

▪ Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will touch every industry. There will be human consequences as that occurs.

▪ Nanotechnology will affect the building blocks of matter at the molecular level, and raise ethical, legal, environmental, health, safety, and other societal policy issues.

▪ Drones and autonomous vehicles occupy the skies, the seaways, and the highways, begging for public policy attention.

We should embrace these advances. However, we should recognize these developments will have broad impacts on individuals and businesses, which warrant debate and require public policy choices, not micro-tinkering.

We need more effective ways to build a public policy framework that will better inform and engage the participation of our citizens in the decision making. We must define the future, not let it define us.

As Vivek Wadhwa, an academic and tech entrepreneur, wrote recently, not only have laws not kept up with the advances, “the gaps are getting wider … and it’s happening in every domain that technology touches.”

Many other leaders and thinkers are speaking to these changes. One is Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, who speaks and writes widely on the politics of human biotechnology.

“We need to develop habits of mind, or habits of social interaction, that will allow for some very robust public participation on the use of these powerful technologies,” Darnovsky said in a Future of Life Institute article. “It’s the future of life. It’s an issue that affects everybody.”

There is, however, little communication between scientific and nonscientific cultures. Because of the explosive growth of knowledge, branches and sub-branches within the scientific community use varied procedures and languages few of us comprehend. Any search for appropriate public discussion of policy actions will have to deal with the communications complication.

What better place than California to take some leadership in starting the conversation and process on framing a vision for where we want these advances to take us?

We have the right elements of the tech industry, the academic resources, reasonably enlightened political leadership, and a history of well-financed and innovative citizen action.

Gregory Bateson, who played a major role in the development of cybernetics (the science and control of communication in animals, humans, and machines), once offered an Alice in Wonderland reference to illustrate that the “difficulty with change is that you never know what it is.”

Alice finds a mushroom in the woods with a caterpillar on top. “Who are you?” the caterpillar asks. “I don’t know because you see I’ve been changing so much,” Alice answers.

The caterpillar presses her to explain. “I cannot explain myself,” Alice answers.

We’re a little like Alice. Like her, we need help. We should be trying harder to provide it because society today has much in common with Alice.

These revolutionary technological advances demand innovation in public policy and may well require new and different institutional arrangements in our society and government.

John M. Hein is a public policy consultant and the former director of governmental relations for the California Teachers Association.