Do we lose agency with exponential technologies?

At Monday September 9 I attended another edition of Singularity University NL sessions, this time on Ethics, Values and Norms. The short seminar consisted of one keynote by Philip Bery, professor in Philosophy of Technology at University of Twente. Next to that Yuri van Geest, ambassador of Singularity University in the Netherlands gave some extra context. The attendees discussed the topic in four groups: big data/AI, robotics/drones, bio,

Philip Bery layed out the work they do on formulating ethical models. The focus on value design is interesting for all of us designers, especially if we are moving in systems that are influencing our life. As he made clear, the technology changes our agency of life.

Bery stated that ethical issues are always present, even if we do not know yet if and what issues technology trigger. We need to design proactively technology artifacts to promote desired values. It is a balancing act between technology features, values and context of use.

Yuri showed some interesting examples after the talk of Bery, like the Nordstrom tracking case (that seems to be stopped already) and the bio attack thread that can take place on a personal level now. He made clear that our behavior generates unique sets of data, that can be connected to the very person. So we need to manage our data exhaust.

In the group discussions it turns out – judging the presentations at the end – that central themes for all was unawareness of the consequences, and the need for literacy, and the losing of agency that is the result.

In the group discussions the proposed solutions remain on the first level like creating rules and education. Philip Bery proposed value-sensitive design is in that sense a better fundament for thinking on these topics, the real shift needs some serious shift in thinking.

It was valuable to notice the attitude of this audience and the willing to seriously discuss these topics. Hope it will be a integrated part in our shaping of the future.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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