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Engineering a More Responsible Digital Future

Economic revolutions often bring profound social change, affecting everything from jobs to family size. With the digital revolution now in full swing, humanity must recommit to building more ethical machines, or face a future in which our technologies undermine basic values like human rights and civil liberties.

ZURICH – The world is being battered by technological disruption, as innovations such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things, blockchain, 3D printing, and virtual reality change how societies and economies work. Individually, each of these technologies has the potential to transform established products, services, and associated support networks. Taken together, they will upend old business models and institutions, heralding a new era of economic, social, and political history. How will we respond?

Major economic transformations typically produce far-reaching change. During the first Industrial Revolution, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new manufacturing processes eventually led to huge improvements in human wellbeing. As productivity increased, salaries and living standards rose. But, early in the process, mechanization brought negative consequences, like unemployment, child labor, and environmental degradation.

The social and political impact of the digital revolution could be even more dramatic. Wars and revolutions may erupt, and values like human rights and civil liberties could be undermined. As my colleagues and I noted in a recent article in Scientific American, the more computers know about us, “the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others” – as long as informational self-determination is impossible.

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