By Dr. Raj Thampuran, Managing Director, A*STAR
Technology is now all encompassing that we no longer pay much attention to it. It never used to be this way. In my generation, technology would surprise and delight: Cordless phones, space travel, intercontinental flights, computers and prosthetics.
The current generation is hardly awed by new technologies that permeate our lives subtly — some would argue, even perniciously. Children and young adults adopt these new infusions adroitly and almost unconsciously. This change is becoming fundamental to civilisation and contemporary societies.
Yet, if the headlines over the past few months are anything to go by, our reliance on technology and its position as a key driver impacting society have made the world a less secure place.
With news on the hacking of Sony Pictures, revelations about state-sponsored cyber-espionage and the ongoing repercussions of leaked National Security Agency documents, concerns over our right to privacy and information security in a networked era have reached a point where we appear to be under siege.
However, there is really no need for us to panic.
Let’s put things in perspective. The inexorable march of technology has been in motion since the industrial age. Technology is integral, even symbiotic, to modern civilisation and, in large part, shapes the way we live and interact with the world and one another. While it has its shadows, the light that technology has shone on the world, I would argue, far outweighs any doubts it may bring.
Certainly, there are questions about the impact of technology in the long term. How will the Internet affect the way future generations acquire knowledge? How will social media impact the way we communicate and relate to each other?
How will this decision-making be carried out by a generation used to “one-click” instant gratification? How will we maintain personal security and privacy in an increasingly online world? How will the role of robotics affect jobs traditionally held by humans?
While these are pertinent questions — and no different from the concerns that first arose with the introduction of the radio, television, computers and mobile phones — technology is what we make of it. Our ability to create life-changing innovations is equalled by our ability to solve problems that arise.
Technology, while sentient, does not have to be insidious, but, I would argue, is a tool borne of human agency, innovation, action, response and need. It does not evolve through natural selection, but is the extension of our actions and choice.
So, while Professor Stephen Hawking raises the spectre of artificial intelligence taking over humanity, it would take a profound and collective chronic blindness and recklessness across the human race for this to happen.
We have and should use technology to improve lives and solve complex problems facing humanity as well as global challenges. We should remember that technology has allowed us to traverse geographical boundaries, drive social change and save lives.
Consider the antibiotic, the vaccine and today’s molecular medicines that have improved lives. Think of how the Internet has played an essential role in social change, leading the transformation in the democratic movements in countries from Myanmar to Egypt and Iran, and allowed people in even the most remote parts of the world to catapult from wired to satellite communications.
FOR THE GREATER GOOD
To me, the most essential goal of technology is to make the world a better place, to take the best of our innovations and direct them towards a better cause. In many small ways, technology has brought us together as a community, broadened our horizons and enabled us to do more with our time.
Of course, technology has had an impact on us in the larger scale as well, improving the human condition as a whole.
This includes improving the access to knowledge through free online university courses and open-source hardware and software, the acceleration of computational speed that allows faster data analysis and accelerates the way we get information for better decision-making, the ability to create lower-cost biofuels to mitigate carbon emissions leading to global warming, the delivery of targeted medicines to overcome disease and extend lifespans,the rise of affordable technologies such as 3D printers, solar cells and genetics-based testing kits that put breakthrough innovations within our reach and more.
In Singapore, we have pursued the aspiration of making life better through technology in a Smart Nation movement that seeks to make connectedness intrinsic to our way of life.
Among the initiatives is one for a publicly accessible geospatial database to share intelligence on traffic and environmental conditions, animal sightings or even convenient eateries. Another envisions a way to improve home safety for the elderly through motion detectors that alert family members or caregivers when anomalous behaviour occurs.
The idea of a connected nation also underscores the drive to further enhance the delivery of public services. As a densely populated, ageing society and highly urban environment, Singapore can be an exemplar and a test-bed of how to use resources optimally, because we truly can plan better, respond faster and even predict trends, catastrophes and other unexpected events with more accuracy. This is the way forward for all cities and communities that wish to improve the way we live, connect and engage with the world.
So while it is only natural — and important — to hold on to some misgivings, we as a human race should embrace the good things that technology has allowed us to shape in our present and future. Importantly, we should continue to direct our imagination towards deploying technology to transform and improve the way we live, work, play and interact.
The world today is techno-centric, immediate and connected, and we as a society must respond, harness, adapt and evolve at the speed of a click. This is our technology-driven life and it is a reality.
You may say I am an optimist, but most of us in the sphere of science are. I look at science and technology, and see how it has profoundly improved and transformed lives and can continue to do so, if we use our collective will with responsible behaviour and ingenuity at the right place and the right time.
This article is also available in TODAY, May 4, 2015, with the headline 'An optimist's view of technology'.