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The Question

(Submitted March 23, 1997)

I am doing research into technology and humans as part of a course on the Art of Human Computer Interface Design. If you could find the time I would appreciate your response to the following question. Is Technology advancing at too rapidly to be safe and what can we do to control it?

The Answer

I can only give you my personal opinion on this matter --- what follows below does not necessarily reflect the official positions of NASA.

No, I don't think that technology is advancing too rapidly to be safe.

For one thing, there is the clear-cut benefit of technology, that it protects us against natural disasters such as storms, famines, and diseases.

For another, one benefit of science and technology is that we can see any dangers more clearly, and those dangers that we notice can be publicized far more widely than ever before. I'm no expert on the field of risk assessment, but all the articles I've seen (in newspapers, and "Scientific American" type magazines) agree that the public are often misinformed about the comparative risks of various natural and man-made disasters. This is at least partly a psychological effect --- an airplane crash that kills 150 people is more likely to leave an impression than the daily tolls of car accidents, even though, statistically speaking, driving is much more dangerous than flying.

However, it is true that technology makes us powerful, and that any misuse (intentional or by mistake) has the potential to harm us to an ever increasing degree. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic. The reason for this is that the vast majority of scientists and engineers want to make the world safer, and they are becoming more and more aware of potential pitfalls of a technologically advanced civilization. So I don't complain when people attempt to assess the dangers of technology --- the more people think about risks, the safer we are. In fact, I myself often have questions about the safety of specific applications of technology; overall, though, I consider the advances in technology to have been, and will likely be, very beneficial.

I would argue that a good index of the safety of the technological civilization is the life expectancy. Despite some real dangers from technology gone wrong (e.g., air pollution), the life expectancy in all first world countries has been rising steadily. As long as this trend continues, I would argue that the technology is advancing at the right rate.

Best Wishes,

Dr. Koji Mukai,
An astrophysicist and a contributing member of Imagine the Universe!

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