Are we destined for a Dystopian Tech-Future?


Moving into the realm of digital technology, the pace of change has picked up tremendously, and with it, the ways by which our societies function have also changed. Unless you live in an isolated corner of the globe that is off the grid, you cannot escape the impact of digital technology.

Technology in and of itself is neutral; however, depending on how it is used, it can have positive or negative effects. As the American historian Lynn Townsend White Jr. said: “Technology opens doors; it does not compel Man to enter”.

Some people are quite pessimistic about the future of technological advancement and what it will mean for human development. This can be seen in the rise in popularity of dystopian fiction films and TV shows, which are not new; they were preceded by literary works such as A Brave New Word and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even those works were not the first to have a pessimistic outlook of what technological advances would mean for society.

With people developing addictions to games and screen time, there has been a noticeable shift in people’s psychological wellbeing. Moreover, new digital technologies are often used to surveil people unbeknownst to them. These problematic trends have had many sounding the alarms, but is there merit to their alarmist attitude? In order to explore that point of view, it would be beneficial to have a look at the emerging technologies of today that may be the reason why some have a bleak outlook on the future.

Facial recognition systems are a burgeoning technology; you might have already come across it if you have a smartphone that uses face ID to unlock. This facial recognition feature has been introduced in 2017; it works by first setting up a detailed 3D map of your face, which is stored on your device. Every time you look at your phone, your face will be detected; an infrared camera will take an image and, if it matches with the stored image, your phone will unlock. This technology makes accessing your phone very quick and easy.

While the use of facial recognition in this capacity is harmless, there are other uses that have been implemented that are receiving quite a bit of pushback. Another method of facial recognition is to compare one person’s facial features against an existing database of facial images; it is the marriage between biometrics and artificial intelligence that is giving rise to this technology. Security forces are very much interested in this new technology because it will allow them to identify dangerous suspects in the midst of a crowd.

However, the algorithms of these technologies have shown that they are biased; for example, faces of white individuals are easier to identify than others, and this racial bias has caused problems already. In 2019, researchers for the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that facial recognition algorithms failed to correctly identify the faces of Asians and African Americans 10–100 times more often than white faces. This can lead and has led to cases of mistaken identity, wrongful arrests and jailing of individuals, all due to the lack of accuracy when it comes to those algorithms.

There has been calls to put a halt to the use of facial recognition technology because, in its current state, it produces results that are not accurate and leads to adverse effects on vulnerable individuals. If you are wrongly arrested or jailed and that goes on your record, you may face future difficulties when it comes to looking for jobs, housing, and even banking services. Until more sophisticated systems are built, many giant tech companies and associations are calling for the suspension of the use of facial recognition technology.

Different Artificial Intelligence (AI) companies develop facial recognition technology; some have focused on “minority identification”, or include that option in their algorithms. A process called machine learning is used to train artificial intelligence systems to recognize certain features and traits by feeding data into the system.

Ethnic digital profiling is not the only thing facial recognition software and surveillance cameras are used for. If you use one of those smartphone applications of transportation companies, you know that drivers, as well as customers, accumulate scores on the app, which can impact their experience. Your behavior determines your score, which determines whether you can keep using the service and whether you get to enjoy certain perks or not.

China is angling on creating such a system, but on a national scale; the State put forward the idea in 2014 and different provinces have piloted their own programs. They are still in the experimentation stage; however, it is all leading to one day having a centralized system. The social credit system is presented as being a solution to an ongoing problem in the Chinese society, that of a perceived trust deficit. Cases of economic and social fraud regularly go viral on social media, creating the sense that people are not to be trusted. The government wants to create a completely transparent society in order to curb corruption and fraud, and to reward good citizens and companies and foster trustworthiness.

It has already been shown that technology can replicate the biases we have as humans and affect people negatively. Whether these issues will be resolved in the future remains to be seen, but many are wary of what is yet to come.


*This article was published in the SCIplanet, Summer 2020 issue.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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