Putting Algorithmic Canaries into Practice

January 19, 2021
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GC’s Hemant Taneja joined Nitin Nohria, who was, until recently, dean of Harvard Business School, in a call for leveraging AI in a collective effort to mitigate the unintended consequences of innovation. To do so will require building checks and balances into new technologies, true collaborative partnership with regulatory bodies, and ultimately, the fortitude to consult and accept oversight of one’s inventions.

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While we have seen unparalleled innovation in the 21st century, we have also witnessed the damaging unintended consequences of unchecked technologies.

Mark Zuckerberg, for example, didn’t start Facebook intending for third-party abuse and political interference to run rampant on the platform. Yet, fueled by the mantra of “move fast and break things” a platform intended to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” ended up having devastating unintended consequences such as the recent storming of the Capitol.

The unintended consequences of technology are not a 21st-century revelation. In the 1930s, Robert Merton proposed a framework for understanding the different types of unintended consequences—unforeseen benefits, perverse results, and unexpected drawbacks. Indeed, throughout history, we have seen how significant advances, such as the industrial revolution or high fructose corn syrup, can have lasting harmful effects on society, like air pollution and diabetes. However, the consequences of today’s technologies are more nefarious because the rate at which they compound has increased exponentially. The rapid scaling catalyzed by Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws has both benefited the technology industry and undermined it by exacerbating its unintended consequences.

Are these unintended consequences inevitable, a necessary cost of human progress on other fronts? Or, can we anticipate and mitigate them?