Academics fear societal impact of future technologies

OTTAWA — A panel of academics at the University of Ottawa this week raised concerns about the way students are taught and the danger of moving forward with technology without studying the implications on society.

Sponsored in part

by the Faculty of Engineering at the U of O, organizers said the purpose of pairing academics critical of technology with current and future leaders in the field was to broaden students’ perspective.

Speaking to room of 150 future and current engineers, the group had the task of answering the question “When should society impose limits on technology?”

Ron Worton, CEO and scientific director of the Ottawa Health Research Institute and the leader in a team that successfully applied to create the Stem Cell Network, addressed the question by looking at the issue of human cloning, which remains illegal in Canada.

“We need regulations in place and governments to say what’s allowed and not allowed,” he said. “What we tried to battle was non-scientists making scientific decisions.”

Bill Vanderburg, the founding director of the Centre for Technology and Social Development in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, said renewing the knowledge infrastructure is the most urgent need society faces.

“The system produces problems at a much greater rate than solutions,” he said. “The system is so complex that there is no close relationship between human needs and how we operate.”

He used a car as an example. He said the learning process right now is like covering the windows on the car and only working on the RPM problem. “Eventually you will hit a tree, because you can’t see.”

Tim Blackmore, an associate professor in the Faculty of Media and Information Studies at the University of Western Ontario, shared Vanderburg’s concerns and said that while humans foolishly believe that they control technology, the reverse is often true. He called cell phones “parasitic technologies” and added that the world is being flooded with new technologies when we aren’t studying how it alters our quality of life.

Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa, spoke to the increasing relationship between private and public organizations. He used a fictitious example of an artificial heart, and posted a picture of one on a large screen. The heart, he said, looked technologically sophisticated, but through a freedom of information request, which he also posted on a large screen, he learned that the government knows it is prone to battery loss problems.

The audience didn’t know that this was a fake example, until Kerr told them. Everyone, it seemed, believed his initial story, which he said is scary indication of private and public partnerships.

“Privatization of the technologies supporting public goods is very, very real,” he said. “Although we have made a lot of progress, we still have a lot to think about.”

The event was also sponsored by the Professional Engineers Ontario and the U of O Heart Institute.

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