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Can your computer be like your priest?

I’ve had a blogging hiatus of late because I was heavily involved last week with Singularity University a new teaching institution about the future created by Nasa, Google, Autodesk and various others. We’ve got 80 students, most from outside North America, here for the summer graduate program, and they are quite an interesting group.

On Friday, I gave a lecture to open the policy, law and ethics track and I brought up one of the central questions — should we let our technology betray us? Now our tech can betray us in a number of ways, but in this case I mean something more literal, such as our computer ratting us out to the police, or providing evidence that will be used against us in court. Right now this is happening a lot.

I put forward the following challenge: In history, certain service professions have been given a special status when it comes to being forced to betray us. Your lawyer, your doctor and your priest must keep most of what you tell them in confidence, and can’t be compelled to reveal it in court. We have given them this immunity because we feel their services are essential, and that people might be afraid to use them if they feared they could be betrayed.

Our computers are becoming essential too, and even more intimately entangled with our lives. We’re carrying our cell phone on our body all day long, with its GPS and microphone and camera, and we’re learning that it is telling our location to the police if they ask. Soon we’ll have computers implanted in our bodies — will they also betray us?

So can we treat our personal computer like a priest or doctor? Sadly, while people we trust have been given this exemption, technology doesn’t seem to get it. And there may be a reason, too. People don’t seem as afraid to disclose incriminating data to their computers as they are of disclosing it to other people. Right now, we know that people can blab, but we don’t seem to appreciate how much computers can blab. If we do, we’ll become more afraid to trust our computers and other technology, which hurts their value.

Can the ethics that developed around the trusted professions move to our technology? That’s for the future to see.