Convergence Conversation: Assessing the Technology Revolution with Chuck Brooks
Chuck Brooks is one of today’s most familiar names in emerging technology and cybersecurity. He is deeply experienced across a wide range of technology topics in public and private organizations. During his formal education in international relations and his first job at the Voice of America, he became a part of the Washington D.C. power network and launched his career at the convergence of the technological advancements and organizational goals during his time on Capitol Hill working as a Senior Advisor to the late Senator Arlen Specter. Until that time, some of the most interesting national security issues were being worked on by cybersecurity and internet professionals. Even then, Chuck was in the middle of the technology revolution.
Chuck and I have known each other for almost a decade. Over the years, our paths have crossed many times. This Convergence Conversation was a wonderful chance to reconnect. We discuss the potential of and warnings for today’s emerging technologies.
The Next Technology Revolution is Here
Deb: What do you see as the next big technology disruption — something with the magnitude of the internet?
Chuck: It’s happening now. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is getting heavy investments from many companies and countries. DARPA just invested $2 billion in its AI Next Campaign. The big technology companies including Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have artificial intelligence departments. They’re working on technology that can automate things to create efficiency and drive down the cost of processes and activities. They are also researching the capability to produce, ingest, and analyze data that can reproduce the human mind at a very basic level. AI is going to change how we do business, how we plan, and how we design. The other interesting thing about artificial intelligence is that it basically meshes with other emerging technologies like robotics, autonomous vehicles, or the internet of things so if there is software, they will be AI.
Managing Bias in AI
Deb: How can we ensure AI takes us to a place where we want to go instead of risking that we land somewhere we don’t necessarily want to be because of it?
Chuck: Bias in algorithms is a big issue. It’s been proven over and over. A recent effort at MIT reviewed various computer programming efforts to identify perspectives. They found that many of the programs contained dangerous biases. When we’re dealing with human factors in programming, we must look at possible biases. Humans create the technology. Humans have bias.
This is the negative side of technology. The positive side is human oversight of technology development and usage. We need to make sure we have a full diversity of people programming code and algorithms. Responsible oversight about what data goes in and how it responds will shape technology to be more balanced.
With artificial intelligence, we must look at the ethical issues that may show up later down the road. We need to be thinking about what could happen if we implement this technology and who is going to control it. Elon Musk has been outspoken on this issue, even fearful at times. While technology can be developed for good, it also can be used as a weapon. For example, the Chinese are investing billions of dollars to automate attack weapons using AI and robotics. I fear how easy it is to automate these types of weapons.
Another problem is understanding the contextual nature of AI. Programmed algorithms only show the X’s and O’s. What it doesn’t show is human interaction and behavior. We may eventually get to the point where interaction and behavior are programmed into the software, but we’re not at that stage yet. In the future, for example, an algorithm might be able to describe drinking coffee with the perspective of the best time for different people. For some, it might be in the morning, but there is a variance because other people may like it in the evening. The contextual issues that surround data are an issue. We can collect data, like how much coffee people drink and when, but miss the reasoning about why they chose the time they did. I’m curious to see what happens next but, certainly, the bias issue is the number one priority to sort out and get under control before we go too far with these types of technologies.
Keeping Pace with the Technology Revolution
Deb: Do you think leaders understand the importance of the contextual aspects of AI? Do they understand this new responsibility, or will it be a whole new game for them?
Chuck: It’s a whole new game, but some leaders are beginning to understand their growing responsibilities. For example, there has been a pivot in DoD over the last couple of years as they have worked heavily with the private sector on innovation and emerging technologies. The department has created several units to help with understanding technology and implementation considerations. They have also expanded DARPA and IARPA research with the intent of understanding the issues of emerging technologies.
Because DoD has been working closely with the major technology companies, its leadership is being forced to recognize what these technologies will mean for national security. Much of the new leadership coming up in DoD has some sort of technical or engineering background. New graduates from the military service academies grew up with advanced technology and are bringing different perspectives and understanding to the market.
If we look back even a decade, those leaders probably would perceive the technologies we are discussing today as a bit alien. This seems to be particularly common in Congress, where there seems to be almost zero understanding of emerging technology. Some of the recent hearings demonstrated that Congressional leadership can’t see where technology is headed nor can they understand how it impacts society, mainly because they can’t grasp the basics of the technology.
The U.S government used to have an office called the Office of Technology Assessment. Its primary function was to help explain technology and its implications to Congress. They probably need to bring it back because change is happening so rapidly that these leaders can’t keep up. They have younger staffers who can help but the knowledge gap is widening.
Technology, Control, and Ethics
Deb: Do you see a shift happening across humanity because of technology and if so, what is it?
Chuck: One is the way we communicate. We can look back and see the signs of what was to become in the future. Consider our childhood cartoons; specifically, the Jetsons. The video phones they used were futuristic stuff but it is here now. With platforms like Zoom, we are able to communicate globally. We can manipulate communications. And social media has conditioned our brains to only take in short bits of information.
There’s good and bad to all of this. It’s good when technology helps us connect, learn, and share. The downside is that those who control the information and the means to transfer it, control the world. We’re seeing very sophisticated actors in China, Russia, Europe, and even here in the United States. And all have their own perspectives on who and how to manage the explosion of information technology.
Technology is shaping minds. We seem to be getting a bit lackadaisical in reacting to emotions because we’re bombarded every day with another crisis and or tragedy. The COVID pandemic exacerbated it. We’ve been conditioned by the ability to tune into multiple news channels to get information instantly. We don’t need to go to a library to do research. Too few people are even reading books. We are basically getting our information in little pieces and it’s keeping us from seeking out the larger picture.
We also see issues with younger people. They’re evaluating their value based on how many likes they get on social media, and experiencing anxiety resulting from attending Zoom classes. We’ve never really looked at an entire class with this kind of consistency before. There is unexpected anxiety over many of these technologies, and we can expect that more issues will arise as we use them more. There is definitely a generational gap that has nuances that will be difficult to understand and compare to more traditional value systems from earlier generations.
I believe a physiological change will happen. We are already going through biomedical changes like nanotechnology implants that will challenge our notion of technology and people. How we listen to and do things with technology is changing our brains and shortening our attention span. Our life spans and longevity will also change our ability to understand how we use CRISPR and genomics. And I believe we’re going to see more cyborg-type capabilities as technology improves for artificial human augmentation. For example, in Scandinavia, people are putting chips in their arms to be able to do their banking or open locked doors. We’re entering an exciting era, but it poses dangers because we don’t completely understand the controls or who controls the technologies.
Whether we’re building super-soldiers, creating a healthier society by eliminating disease, or improving the standard of living, there are ethical issues and philosophical issues to debate.
Deb: I have a hope that technology allows us to offload time-consuming tasks to machines so we can focus more on doing things that only humans can do. Do you think technology will allow us time to think and understand ourselves better and perhaps where we fit into the future?
Chuck: When people were forced to be home this past year, it forced us to think more about what we value. Many people found it in being around friends and family or spending time with hobbies. Many people had to deal with devastating illnesses and deaths. The pandemic has been eye-opening to a lot of people.
When I grew up, we would go outside by ourselves to do whatever we wanted to or we would play with friends and be out until it got dark. Now kids are on computers or talking on smartphones. This technology use actually may be driving the mindfulness movement. The Monroe Institute has done research on how binaural beats create brain waves that balance your mind. We’re starting to use this and other similar technology to be able to relax us to think and contemplate. Our colleges and universities should get back to studying and debating issues that we are faced with because of the technology revolution.
Deb: What’s your greatest hope for the future?
Chuck: My greatest hope is that we’re able to take these amazing technologies that we’re developing and steer them in the right direction for good. All of them have applications that could really benefit us as a civilization if we use them correctly. We need to do it as a global community. We need to have incentives that keep things in check. We need to educate younger people about the implications of these technologies, and the possible asymmetrical impact on the future. Everything we’re doing from autonomous cars to the Internet of Things to 3D printing is science that can have dual purposes. We need to understand the consequences.
Governments and industries must work together to do altruistic things with technology. The COVID vaccinations are a good example. Companies worked together to develop anecdotes, vaccines, and protection for humanity. It shows what we could do as a global community. Whether it’s a pandemic or catastrophic fires, mudslides, or volcano, we can steer technologies to address global human issues. We can plan and protect people. There’s so much we can do with technology for the good of humanity. We need to think about technology in a bigger way.
Many people say that we are in the midst of a technology revolution. They argue that technology is the supreme driving force for change in the world. Billions are spent advancing technology in an attempt to capitalize on this perception. However, at the core of the revolution, there’s a human movement, one that reflects our need to connect, belong, and matter. No doubt, technology is changing the way we live, work, and engage with one another. But it is driven by our evolving expectations, hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. In this way, technology is adapting to our influence as much as we are influenced by it. Chuck reminds us technology may be pervasive and powerful, but it’s a social revolution that ultimately will have the greatest, most formative impact on humanity.