The Innovation Curve: Why New Machines Are Always Dangerous

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Innovation is risky. The very concept necessitates experimenting with a previously untried notion — which is dangerous. Sometimes this danger is simply monetary, other times it’s physical, and at its worst, innovation has the potential for global destruction.

The Silicon Valley boom and looming fourth industrial revolution has rtesulted in a sudden expansion of innovation — from smartphones, to chatbots, to cloud computing, to autonomous vehicles. Naturally, these new technologies have also emerged with accompanying risk — oftentimes unforeseen risk. While sometimes it is relatively benign, even amusing (think: Facebook chatbots developing their own language), other times it can be deadly (think: the recent Uber self-driving car accident).

We are currently on the cusp of an innovation influx in our daily lives — from drones, to self-driving cars, to IoT and edge computing. Are these inventions likely to be dangerous? The simple answer is: yes. Between cyber warfare, hacking, and simple technological failures, there will inevitably be a few major hiccups during adoption.

To examine how this progression will occur, NewtonX conducted three expert interviews with senior-level members of Google’s DeepMind and Oxford’s The Future of Humanity Institute.  These experts compared our current period of innovation to three historical periods: the advent of nuclear power, the development of space travel, and the adoption of motor vehicles. In comparison to these periods, NewtonX experts agreed that there will be similarly unforeseen consequences of developing technology today.

Danger by Numbers: How Some of the Most Life-Altering Innovations Went From Threatening to Necessity

1. Nuclear Power

The atomic bomb was developed before scientists fully understood the safety measures needed to keep nuclear materials in check (below critical mass), explained the DeepMind executive. In the late 1940s a large mass of plutonium that was slated for use in World War II but kept for experimentation was involved in two critical accidents. Termed the Demon Core, it was accidentally placed in supercritical configurations during experimentation that resulted in the deaths of two scientists.

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, there have been 32 such incidents of ‘Broken Arrows’ — accidents involving nuclear weapons that result in the launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon. The vast majority of these incidents occurred between the late 1950’s and the 1980’s. In the 1990s there was just one broken arrow, and in the 2000’s there were two. The last one occurred in 2003.

Similarly, early power plants were developed when scientists were not adequately aware of Neutron embrittlement, where the release of high-energy neutrons causes reactor materials to degrade, and without any clear plan for possible decommissioning. And yet, despite highly publicized nuclear accidents, in terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated, nuclear reactors have caused fewer fatalities than other major sources of energy.

For instance, the former DeepMind employee pointed out that in 2012, coal resulted in 100,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours, while oil resulted in 36,000, natural gas resulted in 4,000, and nuclear resulted in just 90. “The irony is that people see nuclear power as much more dangerous than it is, simply because there were highly publicized accidents in its early days — and the idea of a scientist perishing from a nuclear experiment gone wrong captured the imagination better than a coal miner falling to his death,” he said.

2. Space Flight

There have been 18 astronaut deaths in four missions during spaceflight since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to travel into space in 1961. The majority of these fatal incidents occurred before 1980 — just three incidents occurred in the 2000’s, and none have occurred in recent years. To date, there have been 319 manned space flights (four of which failed with fatal consequences) — which is a 99 percent chance of safety — not bad odds at all, particularly considering that the majority of that 1 percent occurred over forty years ago.   

And yet, similar to nuclear power, the public views space flight as inherently dangerous. Studies demonstrating that astronauts experienced deteriorating spines and cosmic radiation captured the public interest in a decidedly gruesome manner. An article published after the Challenger shuttle, a NASA shuttle orbiter burst into flames after take-off in 1986, described it as a horrific tragedy: “Some of the crustier observers here compared their feelings to the aftershock of combat, others to the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.” Because of media attention such as this, the public perceives space travel to be far more deadly than it in fact is — these days, you are more likely to die from a heart attack (30% chance) than you are on a spaceship (1% chance).

3. Cars

Cars have been around since the late 1800s, and were initially considered highly dangerous. The gasoline-powered vehicle that gained massive popularity in Detroit, for instance, went as fast as 20 miles per hour, but was described in the papers as “tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams.” Indeed, the car was dangerous. In 1908 31 people were killed in automobile accidents over a period of two months, and so many were injured that they went unrecorded. Compare that to today, where there are thousands more cars on the road, but on average only 8-9 deaths per month. “Cars are way safer today than they were 100 years ago,” explained the Future of Humanity Institute former researcher. “But people’s perceptions are often misaligned with the reality.”

Even just in the past 20 years, driving has become significantly safer, with regulations around safety features such as airbags and seatbelts becoming more stringent. In the US, the number of fatalities per 100 million miles driven fell from 1.73 in 1994 to 1.08 in 2014. In fact, seatbelts weren’t even offered in all vehicles until the 1950’s, and airbags didn’t become standard until the 1980s. As the number of cars on the road increases — up 70 million from 1990 to 2016 — driving has become safer and safer.

The World Has Become Safer Despite, and Even Because, of Innovation

As with the Uber accident, many of the incidents described above resulted in the temporary halting of innovation. For instance, the Challenger shuttle, which burst into flames in 1986, killing seven astronauts, resulted in the temporary halting of NASA’s human spaceflight program. There have been numerous safety scandals with cars, as well — even as recently as 2010, Toyota suspended US sales and halted North American production of eight models involved in accelerator pedal recall.

“We value human life more today than we ever have before,” said the researcher with Institute for Humanity. “Accidents are decreasing, but the attention we give them has increased — especially when they occur as a result of a not-well-understood technology.”

Indeed, it has been well documented that the amount of media attention given to death and disasters has increased in recent years. In a sentiment analysis of the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, as well as translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010, a study found that news has in fact become more negative over time. Furthermore, the mediums through which we digest news have become more sensationalist: TV and video content are by nature more arresting and memorable than newspaper articles.

It’s not surprising, then that the Uber accident garnered the attention it did. Nor is it particularly surprising that it happened in the first place. While it is certainly a tragedy that a citizen’s life was lost, self-driving cars are in their infancy, and will therefore inevitably be unsafe as we continue to develop them.

As in other periods of innovation, as the consequences of our inventions materialize we will become more and more adept at blocking them. Eventually self-driving cars, IoT, and other emerging technologies will be at the very least as safe as driving to work is today.


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