Information Technology

It is quite clear that information technology is right now having a profound impact on culture and society. Typical teenagers in many parts of the world are carrying in their pocket one or more computers, in the form of a smartphone, that are more powerful than the computers used by NASA to support a human mission to the moon 50 years ago. Artificial Intelligence (AI), a long-term dream of technologists, has progressed dramatically over the past few years, reaching milestones that seemed inconceivable just a decade ago. Rice University has recently launched a Data-Science Initiative. But while a decade ago the popular view of information technology and its impact on society was quite rosy, this perception has changed dramatically over the past few years, as the adverse societal impacts of information technology are becoming evident. The session on information technology will review recent progress in AI and its prospect for the next decade. It will also address how AI reproduces societal biases, and even increases them, by training AI on data that reflect historical biases. The session will also explore how AI erodes privacy an in insidious way by using face recognition and ubiquitous cameras to eliminate anonymity.

Health and Medicine

The genomic revolution is changing how we approach health care discovery, delivery, and policy. An individual’s health and genomic information is and will be increasingly be used to treat disease, to plan for our health care future, and to engineer health care solutions at the genetic level. The granular and individualized nature of genomic medicine creates societal challenges of privacy, fairness, and even the very meaning of life and our ability to control it. In the absence of protections, unregulated access to and use of personal data risks discrimination that harms patients and exacerbates health disparities in American society. At this historical moment, critics must not treat the regulation of personal health data as a zero-sum game that technology monopolies have already won. Data privacy concerns are perhaps most acute in the medical area, where the stakes are literally life and death, that the intrusion of “datafication” opportunities may pose the greatest threats and opportunities. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal of spring 2018 launched a national conversation about data privacy and consumer trust in technology companies. Health data, however, have barely been mentioned in the ensuing debates about the public accountability of private technology corporations. The history of medicine has shown that cell lines, DNA, and other private, personally identifiable information have long been commercially traded for research and profit. This session will draw on this history to shed light on the challenges of how to incorporate genome-based medicine, and the concomitant explosion in big data companies’ involvement in health care.

Climate Change

Technology is central to both the causes and solutions of climate change. Most carbon dioxide emissions arise from the fossil fuels that power 80 percent of the global economy and every imaginable technology. Technological advances have enabled energy companies to tap into carbon-rich oil and gas reserves once thought to be inaccessible. Technology, however, will also be crucial to enabling a transition to a low-carbon economy and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement committed the world to achieving net-zero emissions by the second half of this century; only by combining technological breakthroughs with smart policies can this unprecedented transition be achieved while helping billions of people access the energy that enables higher standards of living. Yet, the climate is changing with profound implications. Climate change is expected to contribute to mass migrations of people across the globe. At the same time, there is significant concern that climate change may influence the form, type, and location of violent conflict. There is also a growing realization in academic and policy circles that societies tied to nature are at risk of losing multigenerational cultural knowledge due to climate change. This session will explore the technological innovations that have begun to enable a cleaner and more sustainable economy, and the societal and cultural impact of climate change.

Looking Forward - Creating a More Just Society

In considering the broader consequences of technology on human lives around the world, what visions of the future and what policies could facilitate a transition to a more just world? How do we ensure a positive impact of technology on culture and society? With technology influencing a wide set of phenomena, ranging from economic opportunities and democratic institutions to health, climate, work and other concerns, this session will consider how to ensure a just and equitable future, accountable to all. Many of the people most adversely affected by technology around the world are the poor and uneducated. The growing digital divide disadvantages those who have limited access to the latest technologies and has opened the door for digital manipulation of democratic institutions. With the truism that knowledge is power, impediments to technological access are enhancing global inequities. Additionally, climate change caused by human technological interventions is disproportionately harming the most vulnerable populations, risking the future of all species and leading to social unrest. How can policies incorporate constituencies that remain underrepresented in international debates and support the needs of those most adversely impacted by technology, such as the displaced and those with lower incomes? Most urgently, what changes are needed to mitigate ongoing catastrophes? What remains unresolved and what next steps need to be taken and by whom?

De Lange Conference


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