Engineering has become much too important to be left to the engineers.
The Motto of the Department of Technology and Society (DTS)
paraphrases James Bryant Conant’s post-Hiroshima conclusion,
“Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.”
Technology has been a marker of societal progress since the invention of the wheel and even earlier. Technology is making our lives easier, more convenient, and it opens new opportunities for self-expression, communication, and economic progress. But technology can also have unintended consequences typically unforeseen by even the most well-meaning innovator.
Take a simple technology like the ‘infinite scroll’ which eliminates the need to keep pressing “next page” to reveal new content on a webpage. Originally proposed to help readers preserve their train of thought undisrupted by the inconvenience of a mouse click it has since then spun out of control. On the one side is the human who keeps scrolling to expose new interesting content, and on the other side is the content provider who strives to keep the content interesting. Together, it can spiral into an addictive behavior of mindless scrolling and a steady narrowing of perspective – the rabbit-hole syndrome.
Or consider the ‘like’ button which was created to bring people together and unite them in agreement. It too has given rise to unexpected and serious side effects, such as the diminished self-worth of those who crave for likes which don’t materialize. Or take AI-based automated decision systems which were hailed as a way to remove human bias from decision making, while at the same time also increasing efficiency, but eventually were found to be just as biased as humans, but now at scale.
Yet it is not only that the product of innovation can fuel addiction; innovation itself can also be addictive. In their thirst of winning the technology race, innovators often lose sight of the adverse impact their strive might have on other seemingly disjoint issues, such as the enormous carbon footprint of large language models (GPT-3), reinforcement learning (AlphaGo), and block chain technology (Bitcoin).
There have always been adverse effects of technology. For example, some early studies showed that seat belts, when first introduced, increased the rate of accidents since they appeared to lower a driver’s perception of risk. One might even go as far as saying that the wheel itself should be blamed for the many car accidents it has facilitated. All of these are unintended consequences of technology.
It is clearly impossible and not at all advisable to stand in the way of emerging technology. Much better is to stay alert of its possible unintended consequences, study its possible impacts on society, and propose solutions and guardrails that can protect both society and innovators from these adverse effects. Sometimes these guardrails can be technology itself, such as frameworks for responsible, safe, and fair AI, or they can be rules, laws, and standards that give humans more protection and control over how technology impacts them and how they can use it safely to improve their lives. The Department of Technology and Society is situated at this critical human-technology interface.
In this mission the department is characterized by a dual competence. First, it has the technical capacity for productive collaboration with its sister departments in the Stony Brook College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS), and second, it adds social science expertise and humanistic sensibility to the shared goal of a holistic engineering education.
The Motto of the Department of Technology and Society (DTS) therefore is “Engineering has become much too important to be left to the engineers” which paraphrases James Bryant Conant’s post-Hiroshima conclusion, “Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.”
We welcome you to browse our website and learn about the work of our faculty and students, and the diverse set of courses our department offers to provide an education on these important topics.
Klaus Mueller, PhD
Professor and Interim Chair