~ Legal and Ethical Issues

Impact on Society - consequences of technology - A discussion

Robot - a mechanical or virtual intelligent agent that can perform tasks automatically or with guidance, typically by remote control

Robots are becoming an increasingly important part of modern society. They work in factories, fight wars and might one day nurse you in your old age.

 Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence - a science concerned with the general study of intelligence in all its manifestations, both in living organisms and in present and future machines

A large and important field of computer science is Artificial Intelligence (AI), the study of making intelligent machines. Many robots and computer programs are said to have Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI can be summarised by the definition above, with explicit examples of it including:

Trying to get machines to perform very speciļ¬c tasks, e.g.

  • recognition of faces or other things in pictures
  • automatic translation of written or spoken words from one language to another
  • controlling processes like landing aeroplanes, optimising a chemical plant or power station
  • vacuuming rooms
  • computer opponents in video games
  • building things in factories

You might even have some ideas for how AI can be used for your A2 project next year.

Factory automation with industrial robots for material handling in flat glass industry

The 'thinky' AI can even learn from experience, meaning that you don't have to program them how to explicitly respond to each and every situation. This AI starts to pose some very big questions for humanity. Is there really a difference between the intelligence of a human being and that of a program? We'll look into this a little below:

What are machines good and bad at, in comparison to humans?

  1. Machines are good at doing tasks repeatedly (think about car manufacturing robots), as they don't get tired or make mistakes.
  2. Machines are seen to be bad at making judgements which they haven't been built to make, sympathy, inventing things. etc. But if we built machines smart enough, couldn't we build these capabilities in?

What can this tell us about the way that the human mind works?

There are many scientists and philosophers who believe that computers will one day become as intelligent as humans. But there is a question about what 'intelligence' really means. If it is just performing tasks well, then there are computers that can compose music, or sweep a road, or fly a plane, or solve maths equations better than most humans. We can even get computers to display emotions such as sympathy and anger. Does this mean that we can fully recreate how the mind works?

In 1950 Alan Turing, an early pioneer in computer science, proposed a test for machine intelligence. If you could have a conversation with a panel of human beings and with a computer AI program, and be unable to tell the difference between whether you were speaking to a human or a computer, then the computer could be seen to be as intelligent as a human. This is known as the Turing Test.

Player C, the interrogator, is tasked with trying to determine which player - A or B - is a computer and which is a human. The interrogator is limited to only receiving written responses in order so that they can't judge on appearance.

In 1980 the philosopher John Searle posed a thought experiment that some see as proving machines cannot understand what they are doing. The Chinese Room is a box in which a man sits. He does not speak Chinese at all, but is passed Chinese characters under the door. He has a book of Chinese characters and their matching responses. On receiving a character he looks for it in the book and sends the corresponding character in reply. At no point does he understand what he is doing, he just follows the instructions. AI can be considered to be just like this, however complex the code, all it is doing is responding to inputs with set outputs, there is no understanding present.

The lady in the 'chinese room' receives a message and uses a book to decode the chinese characters, she relies on the book and has no understanding of the message she has translated

A similar argument was made by Stanley Jaki in 1969, where he proposed that AI is a little like a drain pipe, where two water droplets roll down, at the bottom they combine to form a larger droplet, but at no point does the drainpipe understand what has happened. He argues that human beings possess this understanding, whilst machines do not.

However, many philosophers and scientists see intelligence and understanding as nothing more than complex algorithms responding to stimuli. Is there really a 'me' that 'understands' and what exactly is it? Could our mind be reduced to a set of algorithms?

Extension:Philosophy of Mind

What can we learn from machines

As machines are expendable they allow us to experiment and simulate human beings without worrying about their safety. For example machines are used by the army to simulate the damage received by a human being from the detonation of an Improvised Explosive Device. This allows us to design vehicles and clothing better able to protect soldiers.

Testing on machines allows us to better prepare for dangerous situations

What are the limitations of using machines as tools?

If you create a machine without emotions and without the ability to acquire emotions, for example a car manufacturing robot, then there are some important limitations about how they can be used.

If you were to work next to a robot in a factory and you started not feeling very well, the machine would be very unlikely to be programmed to feel any sympathy, and would most probably not change its work routine to accommodate your changing circumstances. However, it could be possible that the robot might be programmed with these features.

Articulated industrial robot operating in a foundry

Machines in most cases lack the ability to adapt to new situations, being stuck with the code they have been given, and unable to see safety problems when carrying out their routine. The first robot-caused death was in 1979 when a robotic arm struck Robert Williams, a worker at a metal casting plant in the USA.

There might also be problems on the horizon if AI produces machines as 'intelligent' as us. In this situation they would have no limitations, they would be just like us. Isaac Asimov saw this problem and defined three laws of robotics to make sure that robots and humans can live together in peace.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Technology impacts on many aspects of our lives, but the world hasn't always been this way. Over the course of the last 70 years the working practices of most professions have changed beyond belief. The rate of change shows no sign of stopping and the future looks like it will be ever more dominated by Information Technology. This section will be looking at a few of the issues around these emerging technologies and asking whether all this change is for the good.

Computing timeline

The history of computing is short and spectacular. Many of the technologies that you may take for granted today might not have existed ten years ago.

The Colossus was an computer that helped shorten the Second World War
1822 UK Charles Babbage designed his first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine
1848 UK George Boole developed binary algebra (Boolean algebra)
1938 Germany Konrad Zuse, completed the 'Z1', the first mechanical binary programmable computer. It was based on Boolean Algebra and had most of the basic ingredients of modern machines.
1943 UK The Colossus was built, by Dr Thomas Flowers at The Post Office Research Laboratories in London, to crack the German Lorenz (SZ42) cipher. 10 Colossus machines were used at Bletchley Park during World War II, most were destroyed immediately after they had finished their work to maintain secrecy.
1945 Germany Konrad Zuse developed Plankalkül, the first higher-level programming language
1947 USA Invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories
1948 UK Academics at the Victoria University of Manchester created the first stored program computer, the SSEM. The first program it executed ran at roughly 1,000 Instructions per second.
1949 USA "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons" - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science
1950 UK Alan Turing published a paper describing the potential development of human and computer intelligence and communication. The paper would come later to be called the Turing Test
1951 UK J Lyons, a food company famous for its tea, ran the first business application on an electronic computer.
1951 UK The oldest known recordings of computer generated music were played by the Ferranti Mark 1 computer.
1953 World Estimate that there are 100 computers in the world.
1959 USA COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) developed by Grace Murray Hopper, finished in 1961.
1962 USA Spacewar!, the first computer game is written by MIT student Steve Russell
1963 USA Computer Mouse invented. It did not become popular until 1983 with Apple Computer's Macintosh
1965 USA Packet switching, funded by ARPA was developed. This makes reliable computer networking possible.
1969 USA Unix is released, its design has influenced many other operating systems including Linux, OS/X and Android
1971 USA First microprocessor, the 4004.
1972 USA The C programming language was developed by Dennis Ritchie. It is one of the most popular programming languages in history and along with its successor, C++, has been used to create system such as Unix, Linux and Windows.
1973 USA Development of the TCP/IP protocol suite.
1981 USA IBM announced their IBM Personal Computer. It becomes the basis for most of the modern personal computer industry.
1983 USA DNS introduced
1985 Japan / Netherlands CD-ROMs invented by Philips and produced in collaboration with Sony
1985 USA The first version of Microsoft Windows
1989 Switzerland World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee
1991 Finland Linux created by Linus Torvalds
1993 USA Archie, the world's first search engine is released
1992 USA "Windows NT addresses 2 Gigabytes of RAM which is more than any application will ever need" — Microsoft on the development of Windows NT.
1993 USA Mosaic, the world's first web browser is released
1993 Worldwide Businesses allowed to sell internet connections to consumers
1994 Japan Sony releases its first PlayStation. This went on to become one of the most popular gaming consoles.
1995 Germany and Japan DVD was developed by Phillips , Toshiba , Sony and Panasonic
1996 USA Hotmail is launched by Sabeer Bhatia
1996 USA Microsoft's Internet Explorer is released , and goes on to be one of the most popular browsers ever.
1997 Unknown Wi-Fi was launched. This technology made it easier to access internet and revolutionised it by not requiring wires.
1998 USA Google is founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
2001 USA Microsoft releases Windows XP. It goes on to be one of the most popular Windows OS's ever.
2002 Canada RIM released the first BlackBerry smartphone.
2004 USA Mark Zuckerberg launches the Facebook website(then not open to public)
2004 USA Gmail is launched by Google, Formally email clients offered maybe 5 to 10 megabytes of storage where as Gmail came with 1GB for free.
2010 USA Apple releases the iPad

Remember that this is only a short list. There are many other inventions not covered here!


The internet has brought the world closer together, it is now possible to talk directly to friends, family, colleagues and strangers on the other side of the world for free. As the internet has no central controlling body it allows for free speech on a global scale and the prevalence of social networking technologies have been seen as a catalyst for uprisings in the Middle East, where the people used Facebook and Twitter to call for greater freedom and democracy.

Tunisian protests January 2011

Much of the information held on the internet is free, with projects such as Wikipedia bringing about global collaboration to give uninhibited access to information and education. With free access to knowledge people should be able to make more informed choices about how they live, and this information should help them take control of their own destinies. Collaboration over the internet has allowed computer experts to write software, scientists to share and discuss findings, artists to create shared works and it has even let teachers write textbooks.

As of 2011, the English version of Wikipedia had nearly 4 million articles

Technology has impacted on health care massively, with computer systems assisting in the diagnosis of illness, computer programs modelling viruses and disease, and GPS helping ambulances reach their destinations faster. In countries possessing advanced technologies the life expectancy is above that of those that don't have this technology. The future of medicine could well see swarms of robots moving around the body helping to keep you healthy, surgery conducted by machines and gene therapy automated by computer programs.

Computers are used to analyse brain scans and model solutions

Technologies have touched on almost every part of our lives, simplifying or automating much of what we do. Cars are more fuel efficient and safer, food is cheaper to produce, you can buy products from the other side of the world. To live without a mobile phone or the internet would be unthinkable for some. What the future holds and how our lives will change is an unknown, but it is likely our lives will become ever more intertwined with technology and we will see Artificial Intelligence coming to the fore.


George Orwell wrote the book 1984 about a dystopian world where people were constantly under surveillance. He wrote this book in 1949 and the real world of 1984 was very different to the one in the book, however, with surveillance becoming easier for governments to conduct his world no longer seems so far fetched. Governments now have the technology to read your digital correspondence without you even knowing, they have software that can recognise you just from a picture of your face. Several countries have punished free speech on the internet with prison. Throw away comments that would previously have been forgotten are now permanently remembered on the internet, and people find it harder and harder to escape their past indiscretions.

Facial recognition software will allow for easier photo tagging but higher levels of surveillance

In 1984 a film called The Terminator was released. It talks of a world where the military have created robots to fight wars, in a fictional 2009 they rebel against their makers. This didn't happen in 2009, but many of the things that the film referenced are becoming a reality. Military organisations around the world are building Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, these 'planes' do not have a pilot inside them so are 'expendable' and can fly for far longer than a manned plane could.

Predator drone launching a Hellfire missile

They have been used heavily in the Afghan War and around the world, with human controllers often sat thousands of miles away, pressing buttons like a computer game to fire and kill targets. Software is being developed allowing the planes and their ground equivalent to pick and recommend their own targets, keeping the human controller to give the go-ahead. But what is to stop them being fully automatic, like in the Terminator?

Fossil fuel use leads to global warming

Modern technology is powered by electricity, and the more we use technology, the more energy we require. This has resulted in an increase in the use of fossil fuels, but also companies like Google investing in renewable resources. The creation of new devices and the manufacturing processes involved have resulted in the use of dangerous chemicals, and rubbish dumps full of abandoned technology. The pursuit of rare metals needed for the production of mobile phones and laptops has led to conflicts in such countries as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With people's increasing reliance on using computers for financial transactions, criminals have adapted to the new technologies quickly, offering them the ability to steal money and identities remotely and anonymously. With business and Governmental activities being ever more interconnected it is now a very real threat that terrorists and foreign forces could bring down the infrastructure of a country through viruses and hacking, without ever having the need to fire a single bullet. However, police forces are also making use of new technologies such as GPS, CCTV and face recognition to help them solve crimes.

Exercise: Hope vs Despair

Should we welcome free speech on the internet?

Answer :

Should we be grateful for the recent advances of technology?

Answer :

Digital divide

Digital Divide - the disparity between groups when accessing information and communication technologies

With technology becoming more and more important to how we conduct our daily lives it must be noted that not all people have equal access to technologies for a variety of reasons. For example if you live in the countryside your internet connection probably won't be as fast as a person living in a city. If you live in sub-Saharan Africa it is far less likely that you'll have the same technologies as someone living in Europe. If you have more money than your friends you might have the latest software to complete your homework whilst your friends have to go without. If you are very old then you didn't grow up with smart phones and you may never have learned to use them. There are a variety of reasons for the digital divide:

  • Age
  • Wealth
  • Education
  • Culture
  • Location

But why is a disparity of access to information and communication technologies an issue? It should be pretty obvious, a person who is well educated with the correct skill set is able to access modern society and a larger selection of jobs. Without a proper education and exposure to these technologies then a person will find themselves less employable and less able to engage with the society in which we live.

How can we fix it?

There are many schemes in place at the moment to try and help bridge the digital divide. As technology becomes cheaper, more people can access it, there are also schemes such as the One Laptop Per Child organisation, which aim to deliver cheap hardware to developing countries.

The OLPC is a robust piece of hardware designed for use in the third world

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is getting increasingly popular, offering industry standard technologies for free. Governments and charities are investing heavily in providing education to the elderly and technology to those in remote areas.

Is the Digital Divide bad?

You might be familiar with elderly relatives who know little about technology and maybe care even less, should we feel sorry for them?

There are some people who would argue that our constant striving for better technology is damaging the world around us. The manufacture of modern technology is very polluting adding to greenhouse gases and the destruction of natural habitats. Cobalt and other rare earths are used heavily in the manufacture of many of the phones and computer systems we take for granted. Unfortunately much of this metal is acquired through the use of questionable labour practice, and have the market for them has been seen to fuel ongoing conflicts in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many products are manufactured in countries with looser employment laws than our own so we might be indirectly responsible for child or even slave labour. Should those without technology feel sorry for those with it as they could well be taking a more moral position? Can we make sure that all the technology we use is ethical?

The Amish reject technologies such as cars

Other groups such as the Amish don't see the benefits that modern technology brings. They reject things such as computers and the internet, some even reject electricity. Are their lives impoverished as a result? Should we force them to conform? Some might claim that we live far more efficient and longer lives due to technology, but others might respond that making everything easier doesn't necessarily make for happier people, we need struggle to find meaning in our lives and lives without struggle lose meaning:

And if we haven't had our misfortunes, we wouldn't have been better off. It would have been worse. Because in that case, there wouldn't have been any happiness. And there wouldn't have been any hope - Tarkovsky A. Stalker 1979

In Amish culture it is also notable that the elders are not seen as useless, their experience is relevant to the youth as they have lived the same lives. In modern society many elderly are seen as useless (not necessarily correctly!) when measured against the skill set needed to live and the advice they can pass on.

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