The Digital Life Episode #71: UX for Emerging Tech: Unintended Consequences
With Jon Follet
Along with the promise of emerging technologies — such as robotics, genomics, synthetic biology, 3d printing, and the Internet of Things — comes the very real problem of unintended consequences for people and our environment. While we can’t, in any real sense, truly predict the future, we can see how technologies of the past and present — from industrial factories to automobiles to nuclear weapons — have changed the landscape of our world, perhaps in ways that would have astounded the innovators who made those technologies possible.
In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the challenge of unintended consequences inherent in the adoption of emerging technologies and the potential role of user experience in mitigating them.
Welcome to Episode 71 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey, Jon. How are you this week?
I’m doing well. Yeah, lots of work to do, but I’m doing well.
Great. What topics are emerging for us to talk about this week?
I think this week, I’d really like to hone in on this broad topic of the future of design, and in particular, designing user experience, designing UX, for emerging technologies. The technologies I’m referring to, of course, include the Internet of things: robotics, synthetic biology, genomics, 3D printing, and additive fabrication, and material science and neuroscience. All of which are having major leaps forward over the recent history, and are just coming to the fore right now where they’re on the cusp of becoming something major, becoming something influential and disruptive for today’s industries.
What I think is really interesting about this moment, not just for designers but for people in general, is that we have all these innovations that are coming to the fore. Historically, when we’ve had those things happen in the past, we’ve seen things like the second industrial revolution in America, and that was when electric power became widespread and the light bulb and the automobile became a mass produced object, which really changed the entire flavor, the entire landscape of our country. You can imagine the 1900s experiencing all these great new technologies at the time and maybe not quite realizing how much modern life was going to change and develop.
I really think in 2014, we’re at another inflection point not dissimilar to that second industrial revolution. We have some of the benefits of hindsight of those historical moments that we just talked about, but also, we have an opportunity to maybe learn a little bit from some of the implementation problems that we had with the automobile. I mean the most notable being that we managed to supply so many people with automobiles that it caused all sorts of carbon dioxide and negatively affected our environment. Not just from autos, of course, but from other results from the industrial revolution.
Dirk, what are your thoughts on that moment from both a design and a humanistic perspective?
So much for these unintended consequences, and even an inability to see things when they’re happening. I mean it was a 100 years, give or take, after the automobile began being mass produced to the point when any kind of a popular level beyond just arcane scientists or very leading-edge activists, the people really understood the full scope and scale of the disaster that was brought upon us from just the automobile as a signifier of all these different transportation technologies as well as industrial production technologies that burn fossil fuels and contribute to the travesty that we’re driving head-first into at the moment.
The question of what are the unintended consequences of what’s to come are things that will be really hard to see other than for people who seem like they’re way out there for quite a while. The other interesting question is will those unintended consequences even have an opportunity to occur? Will we have massive scale power generation to the degree that will enable the digital emerging technologies that we see coming in 40 years? It is very non-zero that in 40 years, we no longer will have this. That the power we take for granted to light our bulbs and make our refrigerator hum and make our AC keep us nice and toasty, that play right now with everything that’s happening with the environment.
As interesting and intellectually exciting as this moment is in digital emerging technologies, there is a real question of whether the mistakes from the past and current paradigm will, long-term, render obsolete the path that we are currently right in the middle of professionally for people like you and me.
Yeah. You raised a couple of good points there. Part of the promise of synthetic biology, for instance, and biotech generally speaking, is that some of the answers around sustainable energy solutions could come from that fields. You have biodiesel that would be produced by a modified organism like an e. coli bacteria that is especially manipulated in the lab to generate this diesel fuel. Now, as you raised the point, all of that takes energy. These bugs all need to consume something, they need to be produced in a certain way. They need to be protected from the environment outside. This process needs to be scaled up to an industrial-type solution.
All of those things walk hand in hand. “Can you produce this biofuel at less of an energy cost than you’re replacing with the fuel itself?” becomes a real sustainability question for some of this emerging tech.
Yeah, yeah, definitely so. The conversations around digital emerging technologies are interesting and important to have, but particularly when you frame them in the backdrop of the second industrial revolution. I can’t help but to jump to the question of is it even going to matter? Is it even going to happen ultimately or is it going to be like an early rushed Soviet era rocket that starts taking off on the pad and then plummets back down leaving a lot of destruction and not the ability to restart very quickly in its wake.
Yeah, and I think there are so many reasons why that false start could happen. I mean you’re talking about technologies and then accessibility to those technologies is not guaranteed. On a certain level, it’s terrific that robots can work with us collaboratively to produce things quicker in factories or that we can 3D prints all sorts of objects right now and in the future, maybe even start 3D printing things like organs for replacement in our bodies when we wear these things out.
The question then also becomes one of access. In this Soviet era rocket crash that you just described, there is also, within that paradigm this class difference where certain people will have access to wonderful, miraculous technology and the rest of us will be underneath that rocket ship as it crashes down. There’s definitely a social aspect to this as well because there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be egalitarian access to these technologies or even access based on merit, like if you’re a young kid who is smart enough to work with these, there’s no really guarantee that you’ll have that access. I think we take those kinds of questions for granted when we’re ruminating about these future possibilities.
There are ultimately design … Inclusively, these all could be considered design problems of a sort.
Yeah. I mean they are design problems. The example that you chose opens up real unintended consequence questions for me. I mean we look at things like, “Oh, the printing of organs as these good things,” but let’s take health tech out to the nth degree, and let’s say, cancer is cured and organs can be hot swapped in and out and the whole nine yards. Where that ends up, and I’m no expert here so the number I choose could be ridiculous, but for the sake of a hypothetical example, let’s say everyone now suddenly is living to 200 years of age.
The modeling around what that would do to the world population would be frightening indeed. A lot of the problems that we are foisting upon the planet have to do with overpopulation as much as they have to do with burning fossil fuels and all of these other things. In our own well-intentioned attempts to pursue something closer to immortality for ourselves, selfishly for the one or the people we care about, we are unintentionally undermining the long-term viability and quality of life of the future of the species.
At the macro level, I am really skeptical about all of our attempts to extend life, cure disease, replace body parts. I think it’s really shortsighted, really selfish, and the impact on the human system and the earth system threatens to be absolutely catastrophic and faster than we might realize.
To bring that home to a point we made earlier about the convergence of these technologies, we are at the point right now where these advances in technology are going to happen with or without design input, without a human in- … I mean a humanistic human-focused input. Without thought to these unintended consequences, these technologies will march forward under their own, the power of exploration in the name of science or the urge we have as a species to just try to do it just because we can.
I think it’s important to emphasize that from the design perspective, that’s both a challenge and an opportunity if as a systems designer, as a user experience designer, you can think about the total system impact of technologies. I think it’s critical that we get involved in this early, because this is happening now as we speak and the … I mean, maybe the horse has already left the barn, but there really is the need and the challenge to influence the way these technologies get shaped precisely for the reasons that you just articulated.
The thing that we’re fighting against is that human nature is to only react to something after it’s far too late. I think an instructive example of reacting to when changing the trajectory of technology would be with nuclear weapon technology. Once that horse was let out of the barn in 1945, the pursuit and the production of nuclear weapons just went crazy. I don’t have the specific numbers handy but we’re talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of warheads, and many nations pursuing the technology and the whole nine yards.
More recently now, after the Cold War ended, there’s actually been a decrease in the production of nuclear warheads and the production of nuclear weapons of any kind that are capable of eradicating millions of humans. It only happened after this huge arms race happened that collapsed the former Soviet Union, in part, and created arsenals that were big enough to obliterate the whole world many times over. It’s like only way after we had made all these stupid mistakes that we finally say, “Okay, geez, let’s reign it in.” Even still, there’s way too many nuclear weapons.
I predict that the way that these other technologies unfold and how they are used will be very similar. That even as it’s stupid for them to be exploited and pursued, they will be exploited and pursued, and it’s only after really nasty things happen and we don’t have a choice, and we’ll start to go in the other direction. I think if we look back over all of human history and I’ve chosen a more recent example, because I think the cycles of time are closer to where we are today than some more ancient examples, that’s just how we react. That’s just how we function.
Unfortunately, being that the technology and the things that are being produced now are so … Their potential is all global and so significant, that that is a recipe for a tragedy, frankly.
Yeah. I wouldn’t disagree with your primary point there which is that generally speaking, we’re very bad at learning from our mistakes and pursuing things that put ourselves at risk. I do think that there are counter examples for less destructive technologies, such as the aforementioned electric power. Although I’m sure you could argue that has advanced the potential demise of our planet through power generation, another unintended consequence. Obviously, also doing a lot of good things along the way versus your example of the nuclear weapon, which really is technology with a single purpose, and the output is, I guess, unless you’re really aiming to destroy planet, there’s no good end game for having so many nukes around.
Growing up in the 80s, I do remember the paranoia and the worry about the consequences of those actions. That being said, there is an even greater change, I think, that will come because all these technologies are intercepting at this point in time. There’s a lot of things that we have an idea about how the Internet of things might develop or how robotics might be used, but then there is all of the cross-pollinated opportunities that present themselves when you think about robots that are responding to connected environments or 3D printing special materials that are based on research with synthetic biology.
The intersection of these technologies make for an even more complicated matrix of outcomes that I’m sure will provide us with a whole array of unintended consequences as well.
Yeah, yeah. Amen, brother, amen. The complexity around it all is at such a level that the prediction is just … It’s going to be hard. I mean hang on, folks, it’ll be interesting to see what happens from here.
Yeah. I think we take for granted that … I mean, even having experienced most of the internet revolution and mobile revolution firsthand and just seeing some type of order shake out of all the initial technologies and scaling up and all the unintended consequence of those technologies, there’s an order of magnitude difference, I think, between the communication technologies that we’ve seen deployed in our lifetimes that have sped up and enhanced our ability to collaborate or to communicate.
The difference between that and the potential change that could come with something like synthetic biology or changes that additive fabrication and 3D printing can bring. I think the degree of change potential within the technologies we’re talking about today is so much greater than the communication technologies of the ’80s and ’90s that really did make a big difference in our lives. I think we’re looking at something much, much greater.
Yeah, yeah, no question about it. Underpinning it all is two words that you just used which are speed up and enhance. All of these things, both from the second industrial, really the first industrial revolution, through the things that are happening now, many of them, if you boil down the benefits, it’s about speeding up and enhancing. Certainly, for me, as an individual selfish person, it’s totally rocking that in Columbus, Ohio, I can get a great, fresh sushi whenever I wanted. It’s totally rocking that I can decide I want to go to Egypt and look at the pyramids and the next day I can be there. Like that’s all great.
However, is it great for humanity? Is the cost to give me those conveniences to speed up and enhance my life, is that cost worth it? Just because I can afford it in the context of the money that I have from my participation in the society, the actual cost, the real cost of that on the planet, on the future is just substantial. It’s huge. Are those good things? You said earlier when we’re recording that there are good things that come from this, but I think in most cases, I could make a good argument that those things aren’t good things, that they are superficially good, they make us happy, they give us pleasure, they give us power, but are they good for the holistic? Are they good in the broader context? I think it’s generally no.
I think that raises some interesting questions for designers as we proceed forward. Incorporating what is good for humanity in a general sense with our input into technology development or our input into how a product gets deployed or the ecosystem into which it gets deployed. It’s probably a little hard to imagine that we’re going to be shifting our jobs to accommodate these new technologies but I have no doubt that that’s coming. While the things we’re doing today, the skill sets that we have for interpreting user needs, human needs, those baseline skill sets will transfer. I think we’re going to be shifting in a major way to accommodate the advent of these new technologies.
Then it seems from your position, Dirk, that the way in which we face this or make evaluations about what we’re doing will be very difficult in terms of determining whether the outcome of the products we’re creating, the services we’re creating have the benefits that not just for the single person who’s purchasing the service but also for the greater good as well. I’m sure that there’s a design thesis somewhere in there, because that seems like a terribly difficult thing to balance.
Yeah, I mean it’s almost impossible to balance because human nature is selfish, human nature is shortsighted, short-term; human nature is focused on not just the self but the people you care about the most to the detriment of others. That’s just natural. It’s not anything bad or evil. It’s just how we are. I think it’s possible for some of us to see beyond that and put the broader concern first, but no way in hell is it going to be possible for the majority of us to do so. That’s going to result in needing to have a big, ugly crash before you can right the ship.
Yes, so I know that emerging technologies is an extremely broad topic and we’ve touched on some of the larger themes affecting that and design today, but in the coming weeks and months, I know that we’re going to dig further into this, not just in a broad sense but more around specific technologies as well and how we’re anticipating user experience will be playing a part in all of those. Part of the reason for that is in December, there’s a book I’m the lead author and editor on called “Designing for Emerging Technologies” which O’Reilly Media is publishing and that has an array of very smart people who were kind enough to contribute chapters to the book. Folks from Intel research, Autodesk research, MIT Media Lab, a lot of great folks who are very kind and came on board this project. Looking forward to seeing that finally made available and published on the street. We’ll be digging into this topic, designing for emerging technologies as the weeks and months progress.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in the “digitalife,” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O-.com.
If you want to get in touch with me, you can follow me on Twitter. My username is @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org, or read me: dirk.knemeyer.com.
That’s it for Episode 71 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.