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AI and Drones and Bio-engineering, oh my! – A Review of A Dangerous Master by Wendell Wallach

Popular culture is lousy with tales of techno-science escaping human control. And as these stories — involving rebelling robots, murderous artificial intelligence systems, and genetically modified chimeras on a warpath – testify, the results of these creations breaking their human made shackles is rarely particularly good for humanity. Insofar as such visions retain a positive aspect, it is in showing human survivors who, conceivably, have learned a lesson from what has just transpired. Of course, such anxieties are not only to be seen in fictional accounts. Warnings of the threats robots pose to jobs, the catastrophic potential of artificial intelligence, and genuine considerations of recreating currently extinct species – are as likely to be found in the news as at the Cineplex. And as these stories move from fictional worlds to the real one, it is worth pondering whether such tales will ultimately be deemed as comical hysteria or woefully prescient.

If the unwanted scenarios are to be avoided it will be necessary for multiple groups of stakeholders – including an informed public – to actively engage the emerging trends in techno-science and ensure that they are being governed effectively. For the changes wrought by emerging scientific discoveries and technological advances will not only effect scientists and technologists, and thus the decisions regarding such advances cannot be left to them alone. If techno-science is to be kept from escaping human control, humans must show a willingness to accept responsibility for keeping it in check. In A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control the ethicist Wendell Wallach surveys the techno-scientific advances promising (or threatening) to reconfigure the world and lays out the ethical quandaries such shifts represent. Taking care to avoid being an alarmist, Wallach recognizes that “a single technology can even be beneficial, controversial, and damaging at the same time” (7). Wallach argues that scientific and technological advances reify certain values, and as such citizens have a right and moreover an obligation to participate in the discussions regarding “the futures being created” (10).

A Dangerous Master is an engaging exploration of the technological and scientific promises and pitfalls actively unfolding in the present and what is needed to steer things away from the pitfalls and towards the promises. Though Wallach largely maintains a hopeful tone, the book’s litany of significant hazards lying head makes it clear that the course must be steered very carefully. And it is all too easy to finish A Dangerous Master without feeling terribly much faith in those steering that course, and without feeling much confidence in the ability of citizens to democratically take the wheel.

Unless one is in the possession of precognitive powers, predicting the future can be challenging. Such is certainly one of the problems facing those trying to think through the implications of advances in science and technology. On the one hand there is the tendency to place emphasis on a strong interpretation of the precautionary principle – focusing on potential risks – yet doing nothing but issuing Cassandra like declarations is an easy way of ensuring that such proclamations go largely ignored. After all, though risks certainly exist, the worst case scenarios rarely unfold: turning on the Hadron super collider did not result in a black hole that destroyed the planet, nuclear weapons have not resulted in an extinction causing nuclear war. Some might emphasize that the only real response to the statements in the previous sentence would be to dryly state “not yet” but as Wallach notes “the history of forecasting is littered with predictions that were far off the mark” (30). This does not mean that “forecasting” is unimportant, far from it, but to Wallach it suggests that there is little to be gained from overly emphasizing the risks. And in the midst of, what certainly seems like, an accelerating rate of technological change there is quite a lot of predictive work to be done. Granted, by the time ethicists and engaged citizens can voice their concerns it may well be that things have already advanced past the point where their intervention is meaningful.

Thus, throughout A Dangerous Master, Wallach emphasizes “inflection points” – these are the moments when it is still possible to intervene to help influence the outcome. Such “points” may actually be rather lengthy in time, but once they have passed it becomes increasingly difficult to alter the consequences that have started to unfold. Put another way, an inflection point is the moment when somebody says, “wait, let’s think about this” before the magic lamp is rubbed – once the inflection point is passed the proverbial genie has been let out of the bottle. Inflection points appear as a way of pushing back against the belief in technological determinism that seems to be creeping into many discussions of technological change. Showing that human intervention can change the course on which technology is set demonstrates that certain technological changes and advances (or regressions) are not inevitable. Techno-science represents real trade-offs, and before becoming committed to such an exchange it is worthwhile to carefully consider what will be gained and what will be lost. The results of technological change do not flow simply from the technology, they are the result of human choices (and to do nothing is still a choice), and Wallach repeatedly emphasizes that “we, humanity, as a whole, have the ability to direct our destiny” even if it may sometimes seem that “our desires and intentions are already being submerged in the tsunami of emerging technologies” (69). Though the rate of change makes it feel ever more difficult for ethical and legal interventions to have an effect.

Rather than focus exclusively on a single emerging techno-scientific inflection point, A Dangerous Master provides something of a catalog of topics about which concerns are being raised. These include: advances in bio-engineering, tinkering with the human genome, cryogenic freezing of humans, the emergence of cyborgs and techno sapiens through the increased melding of humans with technical components, transhumanism (the belief in a coming singularity), advances in artificial intelligence, killer robots, and widespread unemployment linked to technology. Though Wallach clearly finds some of these topics sources for genuine concern and others to be science-fiction fantasies lacking in much actual merit – he presents each of these developments seriously, and he carefully unpacks the risks and potential rewards of each. While hanging in the background of each of these topics he keeps alive the notion that “just because something is technologically possible and its benefits apparently outweigh the demonstrable harms, does not mean it should be done” (99). What is of particular importance is to consider the ways in which the trade-offs embodied in these advances inequitably distribute gains and losses – those pushing the hardest for more automation are not necessarily those at most risk of being automated out of a job, and bio-engineering may turn into a form of eugenics that avoids overt racist pseudo-science for a way that allows those who can afford it to ensure that their offspring are genuinely superior. After presenting case study after case study Wallach – specifically talking about the dangers of advanced AI – frets “we are sleepwalking—surrendering control for the future to smart computers and other emerging technologies. Those who recognize the problems either fail to see them as their challenge, or lack the power to do anything” (233).

Preparing to confront the risks that lie ahead requires just that: preparation. And Wallach ends A Dangerous Master by putting forth ideas to anticipate and mitigate dangers. This includes designing for resilience (so that when things break down they do not do so catastrophically) and investing more heavily in research. After all, “the presumption that for every technological problem there will be a technological fix is not sufficient” (246) and it is good to figure this out before rushing pell-mell along the course of more technological fixes. Wallach does not put responsibility solely on scientists and technologists, but highlights that everybody has a stake in understanding the impacts of techno-scientific change and therefore needs to participate in the discussions around what kinds of technological advances should be allowed. Such regulation should mix the “hard regulations enforced by government agencies and expanded soft governance mechanisms” (250) – as either in isolation will not be sufficient. Though regulations can only truly flow from an engaged and informed citizenry that can insist that such regulations be developed and enforced.

Wallach concludes A Dangerous Master by plainly stating the question at the book’s heart: “do we, humanity as a whole, have the intelligence to navigate the promises and perils of technological innovation?” (260) It is a question to which Wallach’s answer is “yes” though his book makes it clear how challenging it will be to reach that “yes.”

With A Dangerous Master, Wendell Wallach has composed a lucid and compelling guide to some of the ethical conundrums that techno-science will force societies to confront in the coming years. While some readers may feel that the book does not devote enough attention to any particular topic, one of the book’s strengths is in the way in which it provides an overview. And Wallach takes care to treat a variety of issues seriously, while emphasizing the potential benefits alongside the risks. That being said, for the evangelical technophile even Wallach’s calm assessments and his distinctly non-radical appeal for regulation may be enough to damn Wallach as a secret Luddite. Of course, such an accusation would be ludicrous (as that accusation usually is) – it is precisely because Wallach is eager to acknowledge the many potential benefits of techno-scientific advances that he writes with such urgency about the need to recognize the potential risks.

Those looking for an introductory text on thinking about ethics and techno-science will find much of interest in A Dangerous Master – but the extent to which one does or does not find the book convincing will likely depend on the ideas one already has when one reads the book. If you are convinced that a little regulation will help rein in techno-science’s excesses – than this book will affirm that belief. If you are convinced that any type of regulation, no matter how minor, will horrifically hold back advances – than this book will affirm that belief. And if you are convinced that regulation is largely a farce and that techno-science has already escaped human mastery and already become humanity’s master…unfortunately, this book will affirm that belief as well.

It is the last of these attitudes that is particularly worth considering. For A Dangerous Master is ultimately a book on ethics in a technological society – and much of the existent literature in this field has a well-earned reputation for pessimism. To read Wallach’s book with concepts like Lewis Mumford’s “megamachine” or Jacques Ellul’s “technique” in mind – is to come away with a feeling that what Wallach is writing about is a desperate (and doomed) attempt to reassert control after the “megamachine” or “technique” has taken over. Furthermore, Wallach’s calling upon the “precautionary principle” seems almost banal in comparison to the force with which Hans Jonas outline this idea in The Imperative of Responsibility. For Jonas, who was writing largely in terms of nuclear weapons, “the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss” (Jonas, 31) – and Jonas scoffed at the charges that such a view was pessimistic by noting “that the greater pessimism is on the side of those who consider the given to be so bad or worthless that every gamble for its possible improvement is defensible” (Jonas, 34).

In the estimation of thinkers like Jonas the problem was not simply controlling techno-science once it had been unleashed, but in recognizing that it is wiser to prevent certain things from being unleashed in the first place. Indeed, Jonas appears downright sunny in comparison to a theorist like Günther Anders who philosophized that once nuclear weapons had been created that humanity was now (and for the rest of time) living in an “exterminable epoch” where extinction was just a button push away. Wallach make such issues oddly evident when he notes that “cognizant of the limits on our vision and our control over the future, A Dangerous Master downplays ends while focusing more upon means” (261, emphasis added). A line like this may set off mental alarms for readers who have engaged with many of the critics of technology. After all, Ellul specifically points to emphasis on means over ends as evidence of thinking that has been tainted by technique – as Ellul put it “everything has become ‘means.’ There is no longer an ‘end;’ we do not know where we are going. We have forgotten our collective ends, and we possess great means: we set huge machines in motion in order to arrive nowhere” (Ellul, 51). Wallach is, of course, under no obligation to dwell upon the dirges of deceased critics – but recognizing some of these thinkers would have sharpened the edges of A Dangerous Master. After all, A Dangerous Master is about the attempt to reassert human mastery in the midst of the very society wherein the aforementioned thinkers warned that human mastery had become impossible – and this has long been a major theme in thinking about technology (see Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technics for a masterful interrogation of this theme).

A further question that arises in A Dangerous Master has to do with the idea of increased democratic control. An idea which only seems radical insofar as techno-science has so fiercely sought to escape any kind of such control. Thus, Wallach’s call that it may be worthwhile to slow down a bit so that the public can be better informed and so that proper regulations can be drawn up seems almost utopian. And though Wallach does not devote too much attention to unpacking the various political biases reified in techno-scientific advances he clearly has a sense that presently such benefits are set to mainly accrue to those pushing for such changes. Yet the question lingers as to how eager a regulation averse government will be to advance legislation resulting in more regulation – and it may be that the money tech companies have been pouring into lobbying (and into public interest front groups) is being done to push back against the risk of regulations. Furthermore, as is demonstrated in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt, the citizenry can be easily misled when it comes to science. Alas, A Dangerous Master makes this almost comically clear when on pages 75 and 76 Wallach goes after Rachel Carson for her crusade against DDT – going so far as to state that “restricting its [DDT’s] use has itself caused some harm. Diseases DDT helped to control, such as malaria, continue to be major killers” (75). The problem with this statement from Wallach is that Merchants of Doubt devotes several segments to explaining how claims such as the very one Wallach advances are, frankly, false – drummed up and disseminated by anti-regulation forces in order to sway a public that doesn’t actually understand the science. While the hope may be that a better informed public will see such attacks as the bunk that they are, Oreskes and Conway’s work (especially in light of Wallach citing something they disproved) makes it very clear that the task of creating an engaged citizenry is quite challenging – particularly when there are well funded sources with a vested interest in keeping the citizenry confused.

Shortcomings aside, A Dangerous Master is a useful introduction to some of the ethical quandaries raised by the major techno-scientific changes lurking in the immediate future. Wallach provides an interesting and even handed assessment of such advances, taking all of them seriously even in cases (such as transhumanism) where it is clear that he is skeptical. And though Wallach emphasizes the importance of citizen engagement his tale of his own, failed, attempt to push for a presidential order blocking the further development of lethal autonomous (killer) robots – serves as a clear indication of the challenges facing any such programs. Wallach focuses on big picture ethical questions, and the solutions that he ponders are useful in their emphasis on intervening at the engineering and political levels. A Dangerous Master is not a book that suggests that serious societal changes can or will flow from minor ethical tweaks in individual lifestyles. It can be easy to find Wallach’s book rather bleak in its assessment of the challenge of having ethics keep pace with techno-scientific change, but the very idea that ethics does and can still matter is perhaps a strong rejoinder to the despair of the aforementioned critics.

Ultimately A Dangerous Master is a hopeful book. It lays out a case that engaged people really can have an impact. Wallach’s message is that there is still time to act.

But as every second goes by, there is less time in which those interventions can matter.

And now there is even less time.

And now there is even less.

And now there is even…well, you get the idea.


The Book

A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control

Wendell Wallach

New York: Basic Books, 2015

Additional Works Cited

Ellul, Jacques. The Presence of the Kingdom. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989.

Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Orekes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Please Note: All citations that only feature a page number are from A Dangerous Master.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

One comment on “AI and Drones and Bio-engineering, oh my! – A Review of A Dangerous Master by Wendell Wallach

  1. michaelj51
    June 27, 2016

    Reblogged this on snave51.

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