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TECH TALK: You need to deal with the downside of tech democratization

If fear of technology causes us to surrender personal power and freedom to autocrats, it will be difficult to claw our way back. Hey, it happened before and was called the Dark Ages. And then it took centuries before there was a Renaissance.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in our weekly TECH TALK column, which is exploring the impact of new technology on creativity.

Because our author is also a musical composer (Juilliard-trained), he has provided a musical composition for you to listen to while reading this column. The piece is titled “The Wild Woman of Half Moon Bay,” and is played by a solo piano.

You may remember that a more fully orchestrated version of “The Wild Woman of Half Moon Bay” accompanied last week’s column. Our author includes this version now to demonstrate that the piano is a portable orchestra, able to represent all of the instruments, which is why it  is the favorite instrument of composers all over the world. It is a great way to deliver melody, harmony and rhythm all at the same time, which most other instruments cannot accomplish. 

As a technocrat, I find myself naturally drawn to new technologies, often becoming an early adopter. The democratization of technology has grown due to the economies of scale and is now rapidly reshaping our world. The pace of this change is not just steady; it’s accelerating. This rapid acceleration into the unknown is a source of discomfort for many, highlighting the need for all us to understand more deeply the consequences of our technological advancements.

All innovators are, like it or not, change agents, but we are never able to predict all the ramifications of the changes we are proposing. New inventions, once set into motion, take on a life of their own. Many technologies begin just to serve specialists and professionals working in narrow areas but end up having an unforeseen broader impact.

As we moved from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits, it would have been hard to imagine chips with billions of transistors on them. In the last 10 years, the Apple iPhone went from having one billion transistors on the A7 chip in 2013 to 19 billion transistors on the A17 chip in 2023. When I was in college in 1973, majoring in physics, we had vacuum tubes. I built early circuits with single transistors, replacing single vacuum tubes.

This year, we will have phones in our pockets with 20 billion transistors on single chips (integrated circuits) and extremely powerful supercomputers now run on batteries, developments that would have been impossible to predict in 1973.

The first satellite navigation systems were designed in 1958, and now GPS is ubiquitous. Who could have dreamed we would get to the day when it is really hard to get lost? The gap between professional-grade electronics and consumer-grade electronics, in terms of both performance and cost, has shrunk to the point of being barely perceptible. That’s what happens when you have economies of scale: when you make a million of something, the cost per item goes way down.

This democratization is producing systems that are frightening to many, and it is accelerating, not decelerating, meaning the rate of change is increasing. People who were nervous about technology ten years ago are going to be even more nervous ten years from now.

For example, researchers who are working with the large language models that support generalized AI are often surprised by what these systems can do. I read two days ago that a new AI program can tell when researchers are testing it, even though the researchers have no idea how it can tell. Read the article here: https://venturebeat.com/ai/anthropics-claude-3-knew-when-researchers-were-testing-it/

There is a government agency now called DARPA—the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gained a “D” when it was renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972. The agency’s name briefly reverted to ARPA in 1993, only to have the “D” restored in 1996. I was on a five-year contract to be the Silicon Valley rep at DARPA when I moved to the Berkshires. I can assure you DARPA / ARPA is actually in the business of inventing things with unpredictable ultimate uses. Here are a few you already know and probably feel comfortable with: the internet, GPS, cyborg-conscious robots, GUIs (the graphical user interface), and SIRI. There are many, many more. Even NASA was invented by ARPA!

Should it be a cause of fear that we have built systems we do not entirely understand? One hard-to-anticipate and frightening result of this fear is that a significant and growing number of people, feeling unequipped to deal with the pace of change, are voluntarily ceding their personal power to autocrats who claim to know what to do even if they do not. These people are falling prey to a colossal “con job.” They are allowing themselves to be convinced that it might really be possible to roll back the clock to the past, which it is not.

The point is that humanity can and does manage change, and there are armies of highly trained, intelligent people whose job it is to do so. Most of them are very concerned about how to do this safely and constructively. This does not remove the responsibility of understanding, using, and managing technology from the rest of us. Most of us have become our own IT managers. We spend much more time managing our tech than we do mowing our lawns.

Yes, we do have a lot of tech, and yes, things are speeding up, but so are we. We are learning faster, living longer, iterating more and more quickly, and we have a new, not-so-secret weapon to help us deal with technology and its management. It’s called Ai. We are going to have to use AI to augment our capabilities, and increasing numbers of people are already doing so.

Google, Microsoft, and Open AI are, at the moment, most visibly leading the software part of the charge. Still, Nvidia, Apple and Taiwan Semiconductor are designing the next generation of chips. New semiconductor facilities coming online in the US in the not-too-distant future. But the game is changing., and these three will no longer be the only game in town. The dirty little secret about software is that if you want it to run better and better, you need to get better hardware. There was a time when all hardware engineers wrote their own software. We built the hardware, and we all had to write code in order to test it. At that time, every single electrical engineer could code. Now we will soon see a proliferation of hardware makers.

While some people are so terrified of the coming changes that they want to just stop dead in their tracks and go backward, most of the world is not willing to give up the increase in life expectancy and quality of life. If we surrender personal power and freedom to autocrats, it will be difficult to claw our way back. Hey, it happened before and was called the Dark Ages. And then it took centuries before there was a Renaissance.

Do not be afraid of change; be circumspect and curious and learn to surf the wave and also to manage it. Ignorance is no excuse. In an age when you have YouTube in your pocket, you have to work hard to be ignorant. If you want to enjoy going out in a boat, then it does make sense to learn how to swim. It is much harder to drown when you know how to swim.

Be aware of technology’s downsides, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Learn how to have a greater rapport with technology. Learn how to manage it in your life., and then learn how to augment your abilities to use

it as a tool. To some extent, we are all doing this. No, it is not going to slow down. Instead of making you nervous, it will make you stronger and more capable.

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