By Ted Greenwald, Contributor
This article is also available on the Forbes website here.
Disruptive businesses transform the economy, as Joseph Schumpeter famously observed, but they also transform society at large. And since commerce requires a buying public, entrepreneurs and businesspeople have a huge stake in the policy questions that arise around emerging technology. Marc Goodman urges captains of emerging industries like synthetic biology, robotics, and nanotech to take a proactive attitude toward their impact on the global community.
“What you do scares people,” Goodman tells the students of the Executive Program at Singularity University on October 5. He should know. He’s seen plenty of scary stuff as a senior advisor to Interpol and founder of Future Crimes Institute, a think tank that explores the security implications of new technology. “In the 17th century they’d burn you as witches,” he says. “Today they’ll regulate you out of business.”
New technologies will be subject to every nefarious activity we now endure, along with a slew of novel exploits, Goodman says. Next-wave entrepreneurs need to face that reality head-on. They need to take a strong hand in shaping the social reaction to their markets. They need to identify likely points of friction, engage with critics, and find common ground. Otherwise, they risk being buried by public fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Here’s a list of areas Goodman identifies as ripe for innovation in policy, law, and ethics:
• Privacy: Ubiquitous cameras, location tracking, online tracking, and social networking turn the world into a panopticon. How should we control access to this information? Facial recognition and data mining make for a fairly straight path between your Facebook portrait photo and social security number. Insurance companies routinely monitor social networks and adjust coverage and premiums accordingly.
• Biotech: Should genomic data be available to insurance companies or employers? Should genes be patented? What kind of controls should be put on the creation of new species? On the creation of existing species such as pathogenic microbes?
• Robotics: At DefCon 2011, a pair of hobbyists presented a DIY unmanned aerial vehicle that snoops on cellphone conversations, recording them to an onboard 32GB hard drive. Who is responsible when a robot commits a crime? What controls should be coded into robot behavior? Should human-looking and -acting robots have rights?
• Hacking: Unlike, say, robbing banks, hacking scales well. Data thieves can rob 100 million victims at once. How might that change the way we view cybercrime? And what about the 60,000 installed pacemakers that connect to the Internet? “They will be hacked,” Goodman predicts.
• Human augmentation: Cardiac pacemakers and neural impacts are just the beginning. Should limits be placed on the merging of humans with machines? How should insurance companies draw the line between necessary and unnecessary augmentation?
• 3D Printing: Is it possible to control traffic in physical goods when they can be manufactured on demand? A new 3D model recently showed up in the online parts library at the Thingverse web site: the lower receiver of an AR-15 assault rifle. This is the only part that, in the US, requires a license to purchase. Now nobody needs to buy one. Your can fabricate it using a rapid prototyping machine.
• Virtual life: Should insurance companies assess the real-world value of virtual goods? Is it possible for an avatar to commit a crime? Conversely, can an avatar be a crime victim? This isn’t an entirely theoretical question; virtual rape has occurred in online spaces. Should virtual sex be illegal between adult avatars and child avatars? “In virtual spaces in the US and Japan, this is legal,” Goodman points out. “It’s illegal in the EU.”
• Nanotechnology: How should we evaluate the environmental impact of human-made machines that are too small to see? What limits should be placed on self-replicating nanodevices? What defenses should we institute against malevolent uses of such technology?
Moore’s Law moves fast, Goodman points out, while statute progresses like molasses. In between lies a huge potential for economic growth and public good — or stagnation, discord, and collapse. As the people in the best position to see changes coming, entrepreneurs have a special opportunity to push the balance toward the broadest benefit. There’s no upside in staying out of the conversation.