The responsibilities of a shifting (technological) society

Editie: 30

Published on: 02 juni 2023

Chapeau: Paradigm shift is a societal benefit 


“The only constant in life is change”. From the times of Heraclitus, credited with this idea, ancient and modern human civilisations have developed, benefited from, and been challenged by (technological) innovations, inventions and engineering applications aiming to improve quality of life and optimise efficiency. Such innovations have become synonymous with societal evolution and growth and have largely shaped the culture, ideals, beliefs, and aspirations of humans. It is easy to instil that every paradigm shift and technological leap forward is a societal benefit, but is that always the case? 

 

When will the future arrive? 

The ongoing quest for innovation has also fuelled the exponential technological change witnessed throughout the last few decades. Among other things, digital connectivity for everyone to everything, anywhere and at any time has become a commodity in daily life [1]. Our blueprint is digital. The Internet has enabled people’s presence, association, and interaction on the Web and has become vastly wearable. This type of connectivity has become a social, physical, and mental extension of humans to an extent never anticipated before. 

The ability to interface with digital technology, data, and the Web everywhere at any given time has also translated into the built environment. The latter is evident through the increasing presence of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the built environment. As a concept encompassing the digital linking of inanimate objects, IoT is an inherent part of the smart building and smart city paradigms. Similarly to any other domain, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and big data analytics have found their place in the Architecture, Engineering, Construction and Operation (AECO) industry by enabling the access and analysis of vast and disparate data from built assets along with the ability to inform and automate decision-making to various extents. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) highlights that the technological innovation powered by the mainstream adoption and use of the Internet has resulted in a shift towards networks and platform-based social and economic models in society [2]. For instance, the sharing economy and distributed trust enabled by blockchain in other domains have also impacted the built environment. The concepts of digitally enabled transparency and trust mechanisms that allow a direct exchange of goods, services, or money between parties outside of traditional establishments [2,3] have also been adapted to the context of our domain. Another example points to the digitalisation of matter through 3D printing. Creating components based on digitally transmitted parameters also inevitably impacts various aspects of our lives. From creating artificial organs and tissue as part of the medical and the emerging Organoid Intelligence (OI) domains to building elements and infrastructure, the full potential and impact of 3D printing are still to be unfolded.  

The above outlines only a minuscule number of the technologies already impacting and changing how people live their lives, how organisations conduct their day-to-day operations, and how society functions and governs itself. Our world is driven and enabled increasingly by technology, which opens previously non-existent opportunities and enables new services for individuals, organizations, governments, and society. The potential for democratization and transparency induced by technology is prominent. However, such large-scale changes are also potentially difficult to accept and absorb, both in scale and in speed.  

 

Societal, economic and environmental implications of (technological) change and innovation 

It is safe to say that the uncovered potential is huge. The benefits of accessing any digital service, asset, or tool, whenever and wherever needed, from almost any device or location, are indisputable. Furthermore, relying on digital representations of virtually anything to predict and prevent failures from happening can do enormous societal good. For example, being able to predict and prevent serious health issues, failure of critical infrastructure, life-threatening events or negative impact on the environment testifies to the value of (meta)data, emerging technologies and data-driven analytical approaches utilising this data in any aspect of life. Such shifts do not happen overnight but are, to a large extent, a reality nowadays. In this regard, whether we realise it or not as we go is debatable. 

In the built environment, technological advancements positively affect collaboration, productivity in the supply chain, and the quality of buildings and infrastructure and enable more conscious choices in terms of sustainability and circularity. As such, technology can help us reduce the negative impact of buildings on the environment and its significant contribution to climate change.  

However, while some technologies can bring huge benefits (e.g., biotechnology or robotics), others could also negatively alter our ways of being and living and increase existing inequalities (e.g., smartphones). With the establishment of social media and the dawn of technologies such as ChatGPT or Auto-GPT, the rapid and massive spread of misinformation has also raised serious concerns. Furthermore, privacy concerns and ethical dilemmas (e.g., increased surveillance on the public, use of AI for facial recognition, etc.) are an inherent part of the advancements and shifts we are experiencing, thereby leading to deepening concerns and the implementation of related policies (e.g., the EU Artificial Intelligence Act of April 2023) [4]. The privacy of individuals, spreading misleading information or limiting access to information, protecting intellectual property, and securing built assets and financial data are only a few of the topics that still require potential (re)definition, interpretation, critical reflection, and governance [4]. Worth mentioning here is also Stephen Hawking’s somewhat controversial letter on the need to reap the benefits of AI for positive change while avoiding the pitfalls of uncontrolled outcomes that has attracted thousands of supporters [5]. 

Recent studies also highlight the effect of skills-displacing technological (SDT) change on 16% of EU workers and the roles of ICT and new machinery in it. SDT is likely to increase job-wage polarisation by increasing the reskilling opportunities of already highly skilled individuals but leaving medium and low-skilled individuals in routine jobs increasingly unprepared. The studies highlight the critical role of lifelong learning for adapting to technological innovation instead of fearing it [6]. Globalisation and technological change also impact politics and voters’ preferences directly [7]. Population ageing has also been found to have a direct effect on the adoption of automation technology and robots, where a 20-percentage point increase in ageing doubles robotics exports and leads to a 24% increase in robotics-related patents (relative to all utility patents) [8]. Technological progress has also been a main driver of inequality before the onset of the fertility transition (1500-1850s), and its impact on inequality reverses after the fertility transition (1850-1980s) [9].  

When it comes to environmental impact and climate change, the world has been experiencing a massive reduction in natural resources (bordering scarcity) and energy systems in crisis. As stated by WEF, living up to the net zero objectives over the decade may be the most important transition humanity has ever needed to make. And while technology can help us reach these ambitious goals by enabling energy efficiency in the built environment and beyond, facilitating renewable energy resource use, and aiding the sustainability and material circularity agenda, it is also essential to avoid unintended negative consequences and address issues such as high energy consumption and environmental footprint from the actual implementation of various technologies (e.g., ML, blockchain, etc.) and ensure their climate-responsible use [3]. In other words, “Technology empowers us, but it also renders civilization fragile” [10]. 

 

We can initiate change and innovate, but are we ready to take the responsibility? 

Technological innovation and transition also mean significant challenges and responsibilities. The impacts on individual, organizational, governmental and societal levels and the necessary adjustments are by no means trivial. Currently, the impact of emerging technologies and the changes they bring are already felt by everyone. What the future will bring is hard to predict, but it is safe to say that we and our world will function differently in 5-10-15 years. Navigating this shift starts with awareness, critical reflection and understanding of the implications of the innovations and changes we enable. Positive impact is possible, but only if we start embracing technological social responsibility as the new normal for the technological era we live in.  

 

Over de auteur: Ekaterina Petrova

Ekaterina Petrova is an Assistant Professor of Artificial Intelligence in Construction at the Department of the Built Environment at Eindhoven University of Technology. Her research focuses on the integration of symbolic and statistical Artificial Intelligence approaches for decision support in performance-oriented building design and engineering. Ekaterina is also a member of the Eindhoven Artificial Intelligence Systems Institute (EAISI) and a coordinator of the Smart Cities track of the Artificial Intelligence & Engineering Systems master at Eindhoven University of Technology.

 

References: 

[1] Brechbuhl, H. (September 16, 2015). 6 technology mega-trends shaping the future of society. World Economic Forum.  

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/09/6-technology-mega-trends-shaping-the-future-of-society/ 

[2] World Economic Forum (September, 2015). Deep Shift Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact 

https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GAC15_Technological_Tipping_Points_report_2015.pdf 

[3] Cheikosman, E. & Mulligan, C. (April, 2023). Guidelines for Improving Blockchain’s Environmental, Social and Economic Impact. World Economic Forum. 

https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Guidelines_for_Improving_Blockchain%E2%80%99s_Environmental_Social_and_Economic_Impact_2023.pdf 

[4] European Commission (2023).  Regulation of the European Parliament And Of The Council Laying Down Harmonised Rules On Artificial Intelligence (Artificial Intelligence Act) And Amending Certain Union Legislative Acts. https://artificialintelligenceact.eu/the-act/ 

[5] Russel, S., Dewey, D. & Tegmark, M. (2015). Research Priorities for Robust and Benefcial Artifcial Intelligence. AI Magazine, 105-114.  

https://futureoflife.org/data/documents/research_priorities.pdf 

[6] McGuinness, S., Pouliakas, K., & Redmond, P. (2021). Skills-displacing technological change and its impact on jobs: challenging technological alarmism?. Economics of Innovation and New Technology, 1-23. 

[7] Milner, H. V. (2021). Voting for populism in Europe: globalization, technological change, and the extreme right. Comparative Political Studies. 

[8] Acemoglu, D. & Restrepo, P. (2021) Demographics and Automation, The Review of Economic Studies, rdab031. 

[9] Madsena J. & Strulik H (2020). Technological change and inequality in the very long run. European Economic Review. Volume 129, October 2020, 103532 

[10] DNV. (n.d.). Technology Outlook 2030. Technology & society. 

https://www.dnv.com/to2030/impact/technology-and-society.html 

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