Technology’s unintended consequences

Feb 26, 2019: A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology. In this issue: Microsoft employees question how their work is used, why lab-grown meat may not be a panacea, and China's CRISPR twins may end up with unintended modifications

N S Ramnath

[From Pixabay]

Microsoft and technologists’ ethical dilemma

Some Microsoft employees have demanded that the company cancel its $480 million deal with Pentagon to supply its augmented reality headsets. The tech giant had won the contract to deliver 100,000 of its HoloLens devices last November. In an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella, they said, “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

Such employee activism is a growing trend. Microsoft is hardly the first company to face this kind of pressure from its employees, and in fact, this is not even the first time for Microsoft. Last year, its employees demanded that it stop its work with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, because it was separating immigrant children from their parents. Google employees have protested against the company’s Chinese search engine project called Dragonfly, and its work with Pentagon’s artificial intelligence drone system called Project Maven. There was an outcry in Salesforce over its work with US Customs and Border Protection agency. Some believe this is Silicon Valley’s own labour movement.

The debate around this is far from over. Some argue that technologies have always moved between the different sectors. The internet, for example, came to society from the military. And instead of trying to stop such movement, as a society we have to focus on checks and balances so it is not put to wrong use. As Christopher Kirchhoff, a visiting technologist at the Harvard Institute of Politics, argued last year, “The best way to influence how the United States fights wars is not through company policy; it is by the ballot box.” Not surprisingly, that is Nadella’s argument too. “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” he said in an interview to CNBC.

Some others argue that outsourcing such crucial issues to the ballot box is no answer. Everyone has a role to play. Leaders have to be clear about the purpose of their organisation (is it only to make more money for owners?) and ensure that the company’s actions align with that. The protests by employees at tech companies are essentially a call for that alignment. As Arun Maira argues in his recent essay, “Leaders of change will be those who will take the first steps towards shaping a better world for everyone, regardless of whether others are following them or not. They will look inwards to rediscover the purpose of their existence.”  

Two unintended consequences of lab-grown meat

Cultured meat has seen huge progress in the last few years. Some years ago cultured meat was seen as too expensive and too terrible in taste. Since then, several labs and startups have been working on the problem. Environmentalists see it as solution to problems associated with animal farms and factories, primarily around methane emissions. Some vegetarians drool at the prospect of eating meat without having to kill animals. And, it might soon be available in restaurants.

However, in some cases lab-grown meat could end up doing more lasting damage to the climate compared to beef. Scientists, who studied the impact of cultured meat and beef, say it depends on how the energy is produced. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane warms the planet more, but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2. Methane stays for about 12 years, and CO2, for a millennia.

Lab-grown meat could potentially increase inequality. In a Twitter thread, Paul Graham, co-founder of startup incubator YCombinator, explained how.

Some more unintended consequences

Editors of The CRISPR Journal recently retracted a paper on the ethics of gene editing. The irony: it was written by He Jiankui, the scientist who is right in the middle of a gene editing controversy. This is a summary of the ethical principles he and his co-authors proposed, by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News:  

  • mercy for families in need,
  • only for serious disease never vanity,
  • respect a child’s autonomy,
  • genes do not define you, and
  • everyone deserves freedom from genetic disease.

The problem with gene editing is that we are still in a grey zone. According to a group of scientists from the US and Israel, the brains of two Chinese girls whose genes He edited last year may have been changed. The deletion of CCR5 from human embryos, which prevents HIV from entering blood cells, also enhances the brain’s cognition and memory. Isn’t it a good thing, one might ask. But the problem really is that no one knew.

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Probir Sengupta on Mar 03, 2019 4:55 a.m. said

"genes do not define you, and everyone deserves freedom from genetic disease"

Certainly both are true. There are constant mutations in a living being. New tech allows people to differentiate between identical twins. So, genes at birth do not define us
Once you have seen kids with CP, autism, Down, etc. you want genetic engg. to fix these kids

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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