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The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Lessons Future Technologies Should Heed from the Past

Monday, February 1, 2021

Author: Ainissa Ramirez

When thinking about how technologies will impact life decades from now, the past holds many lessons and warnings. I have come to this realization after spending several years examining old inventions for my book The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (Ramirez 2020).

Surprising Outcomes and Unintended Consequences

Technologies are generally made to solve specific problems. Sometimes, though, they generate surprising outcomes, as well as unintended consequences. As such, it is my hope that those who have a hand in building the future consider whether what they produce will indeed create a future that benefits all of us.

The Telegraph

Inventions are often built from necessity, but they always recreate society. Take the telegraph, for example. Samuel F.B. Morse would have loved for information to travel faster than a letter carried by stagecoach in his time, for he would have gotten the news to return home to see his ailing wife before it was too late. After he created the telegraph, it connected the country, with news zipping to all parts of the nation.

But the telegraph also had an unusual offspring. The early machine’s inability to send more than a few messages at a time compelled telegraph operators to make messages brief. When newspapers adopted the telegraph in their newsrooms, editors would tell their reporters to be succinct. The writing style of short, declarative sentences was embraced by one ­former reporter named Ernest Hemingway.

Morse may not have been able to predict that his 19th century invention would shape language as it did. Technologists of the 21st century must consider that their inventions will likely shape culture in unexpected ways, too.

Ramirez figure 1.gif

The Light Bulb

When Edison made his improvements to the incandescent bulb (figure 1), he put society on a path that would never fall dark again. But he did not know that the human body responds to light. More than a century after the invention of the light bulb, scientists found that constant exposure to artificial light has health ramifications.

The human body has a daytime mode and a nighttime mode. In daytime mode, the body’s metabolism, temperature, and levels of growth hormone are high. In nighttime mode, these all decrease. The body enters daytime mode when it detects blue light (Brainard et al. 1997). In modern life, unlike Edison’s day, people spend most of their waking hours under artificial lights, which often give off blue light, causing the body to swim in growth hormones.

The impact has been documented (Ramirez 2020; Stevens et al. 2007). Epidemiologists have found that off-hours shift workers have an increase in the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer, attributed to being continuously exposed to artificial light.[1]

Looking Out for Blind Spots in Engineering the Future

Edison and other 19th century inventors were trying to solve one problem with electric lights, but by fixing one issue, they inadvertently created others. It is hoped that 21st century engineers, scientists, and technologists consider that their innovations will likely lead to unintended consequences, too.

Unintended outcomes may be difficult to predict, but they’re important to consider so that inventions can be modified, whenever feasible, to create the best possible solution. Such an analysis requires that scientists, engineers, and inventors do something new: They must reach out to experts in other fields, like the humanities and social sciences, and look at their innovations through the lens of history and culture.

Creating the best possible future also requires acknowledging, probing, and exploring our cultural blind spots. A case study to illustrate this is Carl Sagan’s efforts to select music for the 1977 Voyager Golden Record. The 90 minutes of playtime were supposed to encapsulate the entire planet, yet initially most of the selections were classical music, originating from one small region in Europe. When Sagan received music suggestions from the younger members of his team as well as experts from other fields, like Alan Lomax, a collector of the world’s songs, the record started to resemble the sounds of the entire world as was its mission.

Modern technologies exhibit a few more of these blind spots, and I have personally experienced them. When I wash my hands in a certain East Coast airport, the water does not come on unless I outstretch my hands so that the lighter part of my palm is under the light sensor. My brown skin absorbs more light, so the sensor does not detect that I am in front of the faucet otherwise. It seems that the designers of this faucet tested it only on lighter skin. As a result, this technology now contains a bias, operating properly for one group of people and not all. Had a diverse teamed worked on the design, this faucet mishap would not have happened.

More troubling than an irritating water faucet is the racial bias recently found in healthcare algorithms, which disproportionately recommend less care for Black patients, as reported in Science (Obermeyer et al. 2019).

Conclusion

Let us look at past technologies and learn the lessons they have to offer. The past tells us that technology is a cultural force that needs to be continuously examined. Technology is not innocuous, it is not unbiased, and it is not neutral. Our inventions mirror the culture from which they are born.

To make the best possible world for all in the future, technology development requires oversight, inclusive input, and informed citizens. This way we will together create a future that we all want to live in and a world where everyone will have a place in it.

References

Brainard GC, Rollag MD, Hanifin JP. 1997. Photic regulation of melatonin in humans: Ocular and neural signal transduction. Journal of Biological Rhythms 12:537–46.

Obermeyer Z, Powers B, Vogeli C, Mullainathan S. 2019. Dissecting racial bias in an algorithm used to manage the health of populations. Science 366:447–53.

Ramirez A. 2020. The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Stevens RG, Blask DE, Brainard GC, Hansen J, Lockley SW, Provencio I, Rea MS, Reinlib L. 2007. Meeting report: The role of environmental lighting and circadian disruption in cancer and other diseases. Environmental Health Perspectives 115(9):1357–62.

 

 

[1]  “Blue light has a dark side,” Harvard Health Letter, May 2012 (updated Jul 7, 2020).

About the Author:Ainissa Ramirez is a ­materials scientist and author. Photo credit: Bruce Fizzell.