Gauging efforts at technology assessment

Aug. 22, 2016

Doug Hill, author of the forthcoming book Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, takes a look at technology assessment in a column titled “Staying ahead of technology’s curves” in The Boston Globe.

“As the pace of innovation increases, so too does the scope of its repercussions,” he writes. “Familiar declarations of promise and risk are evoked by artificial intelligence and robotics, big data, automated cars, drones, fracking, virtual reality, nuclear power, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and pretty much everything involving the Internet.”

It’s the role of the discipline of technology assessment, he explains, to estimate the economic, social, and environmental effects of new technologies.

Efforts at technology assessment extend back at least to 1933, when a study commissioned by President Hoover warned that a “policy of drift” is insufficient to deal with technological forces, Hill writes.

Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972 and defunded it in 1995 when it became politically unpopular. Nevertheless, Hill adds, the OTA’s alumni, including Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, continue to hold high positions in government.

Hill says the Government Accountability Office is today’s closest equivalent to the OTA, but the GAO issues only two or three assessment reports per year vs. 20 per year for the OTA. Other sources of assessment information include the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition, think tanks outside of government also weigh in.

Hill warns that federal agencies and academia may have a vested interest in the technologies they monitor—from autonomous vehicles (Hill makes a gratuitous dig at Tesla) to the CRISPR genetic-engineering technology.

Hill warns that we tend to introduce technologies first and ask questions later. “The technologies coming on the scene today are possessed of extraordinary disruptive powers. Throwing them into the culture without trying to anticipate and prepare for their potential consequences seems, more than ever, like a bad idea,” he concludes.

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