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Technical Arrogance
2012-04-19
Is it ethical to create something just because it is technically possible? Potentially groundbreaking technologies should be evaluated for their impact on humanity before they are pursued.

Hollerith punched card machine (1884)
Herman Hollerith invented a punched card sorting machine in 1884. This was a groundbreaking technology that allowed data to be very quickly re-organized, collated and counted. It was a precursor to modern electronic databases. Hollerith punched cards were used for counting the 1890 United States census (Black, p. 25-26). In the 1930s, this technology served a darker purpose: assisting Hitler with identifying Jews in Germany.

Each Hollerith system had to be custom-designed by Dehomag engineers. Systems to inventory spare aircraft parts for the Luftwaffe, track railroad schedules for the Reichsbahn, and register Jews within the population for the Reich Statistical Office were each designed by Dehomag engineers to be completely different from each other.

...

Each card had to be custom-designed with data fields and columns precisely designated for the card readers. Reich employees had to be trained to use the cards. Dehomag needed to understand the most intimate details of the intended use, design the cards, and then create the codes.

Because of the almost limitless need for tabulators in Hitler's race and geopolitical wars, IBM NY reacted enthusiastically to the prospects of Nazism.

- IBM and the Holocaust. Edwin Black. Crown Publishers, New York. 2001. p. 49-50

The atomic bomb (1945)
The atomic bomb was one of the most significant technical achievements of the 20th century, but was its creation ethical? One of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had this to say:
I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel itís there in your hands, to release the energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles. I would say, this what you might call "technical arrogance" that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.

- Freeman Dyson, from an interview in the documentary The Day After Trinity (Directed by Jon Else, 1981)

The leader of the project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, evaluated his team's accomplishment 20 years later:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty. And to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says "Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

- J. Robert Oppenheimer, from an interview in the television documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb (by Fred Freed, 1965)
(This quote is available in video form here.)

Selective embryo reduction (1984)
Selective in-vitro fertilization (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis) (1992)

Selective embryo reduction is often performed when "too many" embryos implant during in-vitro fertilization. The doctor will abort one or more fetuses to reduce the pregnancy down to twins or possibly triplets. Recently, doctors have begun reducing the number of embryos used in each round of in-vitro fertilization to two or three to prevent this from happening.
Selective in-vitro fertilization is a process that looks at the genetic makeup of the embryo by removing and testing one cell before it is implanted. This allows the doctor and parents to select an embryo that meets their criteria. This has been used to prevent implantation of embryos that carry Cystic Fibrosis, and more recently to select embryos by gender.
Automated biometric identification (1976 - present)
Biometric technology can be helpful for securing access to physical and electronic property, and for identifying people for other purposes. Fingerprints are used to protect access to computers, and sometimes for making payments. Fingerprinting and DNA analysis are often used to help identify criminals. There are also technologies that are less frequently used. These technologies have good uses, but could also be used to make anonymity impossible to achieve. Will the benefits of these technologies continue to outweigh the risks?

Large-scale telephone and Internet surveillance (2002)
Governments and communication companies have collaborated to gain better information about the electronic communications passing over their networks. Automating this surveillance can benefit society by recognizing terrorist plots before they happen. Large-scale automated surveillance can also be used to suppress dissident speech, and invade the privacy of innocent citizens.
Human cloning (Near future)
Human cloning could be seen as a way to reproduce. It could also be used to create a clone to harvest its organs for transplanting. What issues will surface if this becomes possible?