Sustainability and the ethics of technology

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In the series Star Trek: Voyager we find that the character Seven of Nine is a former Borg drone, who becomes disconnected from the Borg Collective, and faces the challenges of becoming a human individual again while still depending on Borg cybernetic implants. An important part of her survival and ability to deal with these foreign implants are the nanorobots that maintain them, along with other lifesaving functions.

Later on in the series, Seven of Nine learns to reprogram the nanorobots for specific functions, which in some instances, save the lives of other individuals. With her growing control over the nanorobots, Seven of Nine also learns to manipulate the process of replicating the nanorobots, allowing her to produce armies of designated nanorobots almost at will. Although this is of course Science Fiction, we are progressing along a roadmap toward such advanced applications, which are not that far away.

At this moment, researchers are already capable of injecting nanorobots into a patient’s bloodstream to deliver drugs with pinpoint precision. Nanobots kill off cancerous tumours as fiction becomes reality, for example. Sci-Fi has become science, and there is much more to come. The real challenge will however, not be the achievement of the technical advances toward successful mainstream implementation, but rather, the responsible use of the resulting technologies.

As with the Manhattan Project, one could, of course, argue that the scientists responsible for developing the nuclear fission technology were not the ones who actually dropped the first and (so far only) atomic bombs on civilian populated areas. One could even argue that the engineers behind the nuclear power plants installed around the globe, are not responsible for the nuclear waste for which mankind still has not found a sustainable solution other, than store it somewhere, and hope nothing happens until the radiation decayed in a couple of million years.

Even worse than that, is the usage of nuclear waste as so called depleted uranium in weapon systems in every armed conflict since the ’90s. Such weapon systems are routinely widely celebrated in the mass media for their surgical precision, without reflecting on their impact on the environment.

One might argue (and many do) that the engineers, researchers, and scientists are not the ones who decide to deploy their inventions as lethal weapon systems, which is actually true from a hierarchy perspective. Politicians make such decisions, and military forces execute them. However, one could also argue (but unfortunately very few do) that the same engineers, researchers, and scientists know damn well what their inventions are capable of, but develop them nevertheless.

This ethical perspective of technical developments, and the moral responsibilities of those involved in their development is very unpopular in the scientific community. The primary focus in technical development is on “because we can”, and not on the potential consequences.

This is an assignment that Prof. Israel Samuel Herschberg, aka The Hacking Professor gave his students to help them understand their responsibilities.

Imagine that you have designed a computer system for the registration of citizens for a city with a population of 500,000. Every public and administrative service is connected to that system. From obtaining a driver’s license to a passport, every single step involved with existing within society as a person is connected to that system. What if one record of 500,000 citizens becomes corrupted and your design hasn’t foreseen a method of repair? Describe how you will handle the responsibility for completely destroying that person’s life.

A hypothetical scenario? Not really, it actually happened to one person through a fluke in a system. The ledger of records and mutations was controlled through a hashed timestamp that was linked to the citizen identification number for each mutation, so the final mutation always reflected the current validated status.

Unfortunately, a bug caused the creation of a corrupt mutation with a timestamp of several centuries into the future. Each and every thinkable type of mutation had been reflected in the design and implementation, except for one crucial mutation: deleting a corrupt mutation from the ledger.

Attempts were made to correct the problem, all of which failed. Deleting the mutation at the system level led only to the entire ledger for that person being corrupted. Creating a new strain of mutations for this individual was rejected by the system because the citizen identification number was not unique. Generating a new hash for the corrupt record was rejected by the consistency checks that were built into system. If this sounds like a really messed up blockchain scenario from the past, congratulations! You have been paying attention!

After more than a year, the city council finally made the overdue and very expensive decision to use the last valid data backup and manually re-enter all mutations until the system reflected once again the current status. Not only for the person who was caught in a digital nirvana by a bug, but for all 500,000 citizens registered in that city! For the person who suffered from not being a person according to the system for more than a year, there were no mutations to enter into the system. After all, the person didn’t exist during that period so there were no mutations to re-enter.

Try to imagine what it means for a human being to have no valid address. No valid identification. No valid passport. No valid driver’s license. Imagine that you no longer own the house you own because your digital counterpart is inaccessible. This happened in real life to an unfortunate person more than 30 years ago, in an era where digitalization and dependency on its outcome were as rare as great movies are today.

In this day and age, we simply can’t digitize fast enough, and every strategic planning involves disruptive transformations, and blockchain to make those transformations happen. Driven forward by the promises of blockchain’s opportunities, there is barely an organization left that doesn’t plan to implement blockchain in the near future.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is do we realize what blockchain is, and what blockchain can and can’t achieve, or are we simply following the hype that blockchain can solve every problem that we are, and will be facing in the future?

Will blockchain solve how we pollute the planet? No, in its current form it is actually causing additional pollution with the immense and unsustainable energy consumption of (crypto) mining farms and distributed infrastructure. Will blockchain cure cancer? Not really. The decision by some countries to restart coal power plants to supply cheap power for blockchain mining farms might even propagate more cancers in the long run.

In the near future however, blockchain might contribute to finding cures for cancer through transparent shared information bases for all researchers. Blockchain can also support patients by creating transparent and accessible healthcare data platforms. That said, blockchain will not, by itself, cure cancer, or any other type of disease.

Prior to the implementation of innovative disruptive technology such as blockchain or nanotechnology, we should take a step back and do Prof. Herschberg’s exercise. Describe how you will handle the responsibility for completely destroying a person’s life. This might lead to the implementation of a reset button in blockchain implementations once we realize that it is based on software, and software is predetermined to suffer under bugs and other unforeseen features.

Blockchain software, just like any other IT based technology, is also likely preset to be the focus of hackers, and other criminal energy. The alleged unhackable bastions of blockchain and cryptocurrencies are rapidly falling apart. Those who continue to advocate that blockchain platforms can’t be hacked should be forced to review and comment on the endless stream of bug fixes in publicly available software repositories.

Prof. Herschberg was a visionary devil’s advocate in the areas of Ethical Hacking and Design Thinking, long before these fields became mainstream. Prof. Herschberg also was an advocate of Red Teaming without even being aware of it. “After focusing on what can be achieved, focus on what could go wrong and solve that before destroying someone’s life.” was his message to his students and fellow researchers.

There are many such visionaries out there. The challenge is that we prefer not to pay attention to them. We prefer the good messages, about everything that will be possible with the wonderful new technology, without reflecting on their consequences and impact. Without implementing that reset button, just in case we need it. We storm ahead, forgot all about the importance of Critical Thinking but once the milk is in to coffee, you can’t go backwards.

Where is that visionary advocate in the fields of blockchain, artificial intelligence and more, who understands the technology and opportunities, while still being capable of being devil’s advocate among the choirs of cheerleaders and salesmen? Until we find a better qualified candidate, I will boldly take that role from now on. Better get yourself a comfortable seat, this won’t be an easy ride! Egos will get crushed and illusions will get debunked. Sorry, nor sorry. #IamJD

Written by

Dad, consultant, coach, speaker, author. Mainly Cyber Security, leadership, responsible tech and organizational change.

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