IST03 Social Impact of Technology

Technologies bring benefits while concurrently polarizing society into two groups: those who leverage technology and those who do not. To prevent growing social imbalance, people must change behavior to coexist with technologies while adapting culture and regulations.

A Technological Social Divide

Although technology improves lives, it can also create a digital divide.1 Technological advances have afforded humans a variety of benefits, including instant, global communications, lower costs for generating innovation and the means to convert ideas into tangible form. In fact, technology itself helps to generate new services and innovations, which in turn creates other technologies in a virtuous cycle. It may, however, produce unforeseen, new social barriers. 

The worst scenario is that people will become divided into technological haves and have-nots. While a community may enjoy significant benefits from technologies as a whole, the cost for leveraging technology increases over time, potentially making homogenous members unite with one another. For instance, using technology to eliminate geographical and temporal limitations, it is simple for technology-savvy individuals to move to preferred locations to improve lifestyles, maximize profitability and protect intellectual property. As a result, innovators typically gather in more loosely regulated countries and regions, making them centers of global innovation.

There is also a possibility that the technological gap between the haves and have-nots or the supporters and opponents of innovation, will deepen. One example of this is the advanced medical care enabled for some by HealthTech,2 while other less wealthy individuals may not be able to obtain even basic medical care. If social benefits require both knowledge of technology and wealth, vulnerable members of society may be left behind.

1 An issue that produces an informational gap between people who have the ability to use and opportunities to access information technology such as personal computers and the internet, and those who do not.
2Coined from “health” and “technology,” this term refers to an emerging medical service or innovation that utilizes state-of-the-art digital technology.

A Warning About the Digital Divide

Geographic location and demographics contribute to widening the digital divide. This socioeconomic divide precludes those in rural areas or lower social classes from benefits only afforded to those with access to technology. In addition, senior citizens less familiar with digital technology may oppose its adoption. As technology becomes commonplace, digital illiteracy becomes directly linked to social disadvantages and risks.

The impact of a digital divide is evident in Sweden, a country that has a cash circulation rate of approximately 1.4%, less than its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)3 and prompting its reputation as a near cashless society. A group of older citizens less familiar with digital devices, together with those who fear the risk of cyberattacks, have launched an opposition organization called Kontantupproret (Cash Rebellion), appealing for the continuation and use of cash.

3The Current State of Cashless Payments, by the Payment and Settlement Systems Department, the Bank of Japan, September 2018.

Emerging Issues

In an era where the internet of things (IoT) connects all including people and money, sensors track the thoughts and actions of individuals and companies and spread that information worldwide through online networks. While this phenomenon may improve convenience and service quality, it also creates an environment vulnerable to cyberattacks. To counter this security threat, society must mobilize the knowledge and power of a variety of stakeholders ranging from individuals to companies and national governments.

While the advancement of AI has enabled the automatic development of diverse content, it has also resulted in the generation and dissemination of false information. This is now an extremely serious issue. Anyone with a basic amount of technical knowledge and skill can create believable, fake data. For example, an AI-generated bogus video portraying an electoral candidate insulting an opponent can look perfectly natural to viewers. The use of such sophisticated fake data can further deepen individual or methodological biases. To counteract this societal threat, AI must once again be employed in order to detect and counteract false information.

The Need for Ethics

Synthetic biology, which modifies genomes to synthesize new cells and organisms, and genetic editing technology that operate on genes that cause disease, will likely help find cures for intractable diseases and produce crops that can survive environmental changes. Conversely, these same technologies trigger major ethical questions and may create unforeseen threats. For instance, in China a doctor claimed he edited the genes of twin babies. This news garnered global attention and created a significant ethical and regulatory debate. How should we address the ethical issues and implications arising from emerging technologies? The answer to this question will be of the utmost importance in the future.

Choices That Confront Us

A digitally, advanced society will likely provide unprecedented advantages. However, the slightest misstep in technical and biological innovations may result in substantial moral and ethical problems. To mitigate this, efforts are underway in the U.S. to create a guidebook on the ethical impact of technology. In addition, the European Union (EU) has defined its policy to protect individuals affected by innovations. These guidelines for AI ethics include requirements for developing an AI system to eliminate discrimination and provide human oversight to track and intervene, if necessary, AI decisions. Also, the EU implemented its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a policy to protect the personal data and privacy of its citizens.

To coexist with changing technology, society can foster ethical standards, institute societal rules and regulations, or combine both approaches. The appropriate equilibrium point of ethics versus regulations is yet to be determined. Nonetheless, while the existence of rules will encourage emerging innovations consistent with them, a trial-and-error search for this balance will likely continue to be a major social issue.

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