Houston Matters

How to deal with the unintended consequences technology creates

We discuss how technological advancements in our lives might, in fact, do more harm than good and how to develop new technology that minimizes those unintended consequences.

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It often seems like technology solves one problem and creates many news ones at the same time.

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The world works in balance, for every good thing there will be a bad one accomplishing it. Every technological advancement brings innovation as well as problems attached to it.

This week alone, United Airlines had to cancel all departing flights due to a bug in their software, although it is not the first time it has happened to an airline.

On Wednesday and Thursday, all driver's license appointments were canceled by the Texas Department of Public Safety as they updated their system.

On the other hand, a fully automated McDonald's opened in Fort Worth, and a Whataburger digital kitchen that just opened in Austin. If they work it'll be great, unless you're a minimum wage worker who relies on the jobs that these technologies threaten to replace.

Houston Matters host Craig Cohen talked with Rice University professors Dr. Moshe Vardi, and Dr. Rodrigo Ferreira, who teach technology and ethics to the next generation of computer scientists and engineers and focus on what they should think about while developing new devices, apps and concepts.

Technological advancements that help some but harm others go back to the Greek myth about Prometheus, Vardi said. Technology has benefits and costs, which is a story humans keep failing to learn about.

Prometheus steals fire from the gods to give to humans, to punish him Zeus sends him the Pandora's box, which unleashes sickness, death and unknown evils for the world.

"The human having the lack of anything that sets them apart, this whole technology becomes that," Ferreira said. "I find it very interesting because ultimately the message of the Greek myth is that technology is a part of it. Technology is not something that we can ever do without."

Teaching the course to undergraduate students is seeing how technology is an inextricable part of their everyday lives and who they are as individuals, Ferreira said.

It is important to teach computer science and engineering students how new technological advancements have a cost attached to them, the professors said.

"It is deeply heartening to see the students come up to this realization as they arrive at their class and they open at the office, like ‘I was blind and now I can see'," Vardi said. "They see that technology only has consequences. They are responsible."

They have developed what they call is a concept of "deep tech ethics."

"The idea that we need to understand, not in a superficial way, of looking at it more structural, thinking about well, it’s not just about what’s right or wrong," Ferreira said.

There are also conversations about ethics in the media regarding corporations. As they talk about solutions, they tend to think in the most optimal way, which may not be the answer to the problem, the professors said.

Ferreira said many ethics classes do not talk about the most critical part of the story: the people.

"Let’s talk about the people that are being affected, let’s hear their story. Let’s learn about the problems that they’re having. Right,” Ferreira said. “And if we think about that, if we think about the people that start with people first, then we can think about justice, and then we can think about solutions. and then we can think about how to make things better.”