Towards A Better Future
Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilization
By John Browne
Pegasus Books, 2019, pp. 416, $23.16
Browne urges the reader to believe in a better future at the beginning of his work. His lens of looking at engineering and technology allows one to have hope that technology will solve more problems rather than create bigger challenges, and the only determinant is pragmatism. He reiterates that we do not need to fall into binaries of pessimism and optimism, but believe that we can set up institutions which promote accountability and account for consequences. It highlights how inventions which were created painstakingly years ago and marketed as luxuries are now everyday household items for us. It is refreshing to see a book which doesn’t put down technology as apocalyptic, and readers do not have to be constantly marked with worry about how technology giants are trying to misuse their data. Inventions and engineering have been around since neolithic times, and our ideas are only as good as the use cases that we devise for them. One of the biggest concerns raised with the advancement of technology is the loss of jobs, and the disruption brought about in the marketspace. However, the book reassures the reader of the fact that one must think of such processes as akin to a transition and not a death sentence for the economy. The process of making and creating keeps our creativity alive and lets us apply our learning, be it open-source software which is equally accessible to all or 3D printing which is based on the principles of innovation developed by society over thousands of years.
Delving into the complexity of thought, Browne discusses how computers facilitate solutions to complex thought experiments—initially when personal computers permeated homes, people were worried that they would replace jobs. However, law is one profession where practitioners have actually enhanced their vocation with the creation of more opportunities. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the scope of problem-solving became even more vast—with machine learning being applied to the most granular areas of life. These advancements are likely to become bigger and better as the years roll by, entering into every sphere of life—medicine, education, military—there is no limit to the application of AI. However, the book remains true to empower the reader to face issues of ‘black boxes’—where algorithms remain opaque and users do not understand their functioning.
It is important to address these issues, especially when AI is embedded in the functioning of policies—worrisome ‘terminators’ are not the problem at hand, lack of diversity and bias in technology is. This point brought out by the book is highly relevant to developing technology, because technology is a tool in the hands of people—how society chooses to wield them, and who uses them, makes the ultimate difference.
Another theme which has been given gravity in the book is trust and privacy, which are topics no book on technology would be complete without addressing. There is a fine line we balance everyday in terms of trading our privacy and personal data for the services offered to us by businesses and the state. The onus should be on companies, and not on users, to uphold the tenets of user safety and privacy. With the paranoia about robots replacing human intimacy, the book reminds us about how robots will not replace human relationships—but supplement and enhance them. The research undertaken in the book is thorough, and academics from different walks of life have been interviewed to opine on issues which touch human lives. References to movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey help to bridge the gap between science-fiction and how much of it we can expect to play a role in our future. However, with great power comes responsibility—and that is where the role of regulation comes in. For instance, society does not need a wave of technology that can be used to commit mass genocide; it needs automation which will help in bridging gaps in healthcare which can ultimately save and improve lives. The book ends on the note which pushes the reader to develop patience and reflect, to design strong, well-thought-out regulation and reduce damage as much as possible. In order to drive the point of belief and hope further, Browne ends with how our focus should be on the gift of imagination we have, and how we should constantly strive to dream of a better world.
Kazim Rizvi is a public policy entrepreneur and founder of an emerging policy think-think, The Dialogue.