Technology dictated many major events in 2014. It was a year bookended by airline disasters, with three planes linked to Malaysian Airlines involved in catastrophes. It was a year of unrest — abroad and within the U.S. The actions and atrocities of the Islamic State drew near universal condemnation globally. Actions by police leading to the deaths of two black men caused riots and mass protests in the U.S. and may have inspired the murder of two police officers in New York City by a deranged man. We faced the resurgence of Ebola and a botched medical response in the U.S. The massive technology breaches that affected Target, Home Depot and Sony made people feel vulnerable (temporarily anyway).
As much as 2014 will be remembered by these seemingly unlinked events and tragedies, the common element to the widely publicized stories was the role of technology in causing the problem or the inability of technology to solve it. Because we love the beauty of technological solutions, we demand advances, even when concerns are raised by individuals or nations.
How could the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 carrying 239 people, a Boeing 777 jet that was 242 feet long, 61 feet tall, weighing up to 660,000 pounds, just disappear? Its systems connected hourly with a satellite telecommunications company even after all other communications stopped. Hope remains that the jet will be found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, but the incident remains a mystery. Shortly after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared, another Boeing 777, this time carrying 298 people, exploded over the Ukraine, when it was hit by a missile fired by a surface-to-air system. The missile, traveling at a speed of 1,900 mph, decimated the airliner. And at the end of the year, Air Asia flight 8501, an Airbus A-320 aircraft with 162 people onboard, crashed apparently because of technical engine failures due to weather. Because Air Asia is a 49 percent subsidiary, it represented another blow to Malaysian Airlines. One question arising from the three air disasters is simple: at a time when components can “talk” and weapons have amazing speed, power and ability to kill, why couldn’t technology prevent ice crystals from forming in an airliner’s engines or even lead the plane around the problem thunderstorm?
In the United States, the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri sparked riots and heated debate. It also encouraged the practice of equipping police with body cameras that document their activities. The underlying theory is that the transparency afforded by such technology will provide better evidence to the public when something goes wrong (and may even cause all parties to mind their behavior). The theory was put to the test when the death of a man who struggled with police in New York was videotaped and disseminated widely. Even so, there was no clear picture because of the wide interpretations of what happened in the video. Again, it seems we have great confidence that technology will provide an answer to certain problems, but how do you address the interpretation and judgment issues that go hand in hand with the use of technology?
When the Ebola epidemic spread in West Africa this year, people in the U.S. were assured that such a problem could not happen here. The assurance evoked much cynicism when a hospital in Dallas seemed not to follow protocol when Ebola struck. Fortunately, we appear able to contain Ebola and cure those who are infected, but the same therapeutic technologies don’t seem to be available or effective in West Africa. In this case, there does not seem to be a technology solution.
Finally, in 2014, the data breaches at Target and Home Depot affected many U.S. consumers as credit card and other information was potentially exposed when hackers accessed secure terminals at those companies. This caused the reissuance of many credit cards and extra attention to monthly charges to determine if fraud had been committed as a result of the breaches. Near the end of the year, however, the Sony breach seemed to be more challenging because it exposed electronic information on a much broader scale and involved internal documents and communications. The U.S. government has called it an act of state-supported terrorism by North Korea.
The link across these top stories is the misuse and ineffectiveness of technology. Advances in technology in recent years have enabled many positive societal outcomes. Most people have cell phones, new cars have black boxes to record data (similar to an airplane) in case of an accident, cameras linked to traffic control software create smoother traffic flow in many cities and wearable technology allows people to monitor their activity, health, and connect with others. In 2014, many of the main stories emphasized the shortcomings of technology. While this may be affected by the proclivity of the media to emphasize the negative, it illustrates the vulnerability that is caused by dependence on technology, belief in technical solutions and the escalation of the problem.
Some individuals have noted that we are entering an age of the Internet of Things (IoT). This refers to the ability of devices and appliances to talk to each other remotely and wirelessly. In positive form, it allows you to lock your doors remotely, turn your oven on or off and view activities in your home or office from afar. It also allows the devices to “help” you by braking your car if you get too close to another vehicle or turning your water off if a leak is detected. But it also creates an enormous technology vulnerability that could be hacked. There have already been television plots involving deaths when someone hacked into an individual’s addressable implanted medical device. There is also much writing and discussion about advances in artificial intelligence and the ethical issues that must be addressed as we equip computers and robots to act like human beings. Will the common flaws in 2014’s top stories be tragically exposed in a worse way involving artificial intelligence in a future year?
Our societal and business challenge is to ensure the design of adequate safeguards in new and existing IoT systems and to avoid panic about the inevitable changes that will be created by open communication among devices and appliances. Moreover, in some ways, the coming wave of technology enhancements brings a darker connotation to the title of P.D. James novel and miniseries, Devices and Desires, as the enabling of devices unleashes some of man’s less noble desires.
My hope for 2015 is that we recognize the need to consider humanity while seeking a technology that is the next big thing. At one point in time, dinosaurs were the big thing. Ironically, technology could send humans the way of the dinosaurs as easily as it could improve our lives. The difference is at the margin but the cost is infinite.