Pondering the Dark Side of Technology


By Samuel Greengard

In the 1982 sci-fi flick Tron, a hacker finds himself abducted into a computer and forced to participate in gladiatorial games. At the time, living inside a computer and rummaging around within a network was a far-out but fascinating idea.

But maybe, in the final analysis, Tron was really a horror flick.

Today, technology still seems largely benign. We don't literally exist inside computers, but computers clearly exist within and around us. In fact, networked devices have become so pervasive that they influence us during most of our waking--and sometimes sleeping--hours. Smartphones and tablets keep us connected 24x7. Athletic apparel makers are designing clothing and shoes that provide instant feedback, and medical device manufacturers are building new and ultra-sophisticated monitoring systems by placing circuits directly on the skin.

There are now pill dispensers that provide visual and auditory feedback about when to take meds--and even generate a call you if you miss a dose. There are home thermostats and home management systems that you can control from your iPhone, halfway around the world.

But this isn't Disney's Carousel of Progress.

There is a tremendous upside to networked systems. In many ways, the technology has made our lives easier, safer and better, and makes amazing things happen transparently and automatically.

But there's a downside too. Crooks, terrorists and malevolent hackers have unprecedented power to wreak havoc on a small or massive scale.

I'm not sure anyone is thinking too much about the latter--other than a few ivory tower researchers, the Pentagon and conspiracy theorists. The next phase of all this, nanotechnology, is just about to burst onto the scene, complete with insect weapons, nanocrime and systems that could allow anyone to manufacture drugs, weapons and other illicit items from the comfort of their own homes.

Computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity is Near, predicts that artificial intelligence will match humans by 2029 and human and machine will merge into one by 2045. Who knows if he has the dates exactly right but I'm sure he's not too far off.

I think I'll stow that thought for a while and go back to a networked game of Word Scramble.