Fear of technology is contagious, linked to the rapid evolution of breakthroughs and their impact. So what exactly is technophobia in our AI age... and can it be cured?
MADRID — Several days before Elon Musk unveiled his latest creation, Optimus, the humanoid robot that he intends to bring en masse into homes around the world — the wealthy ones as its price will be around $20,000 — the internet began to fill with critical comments about the entrepreneur’s new idea.
In theory, Optimus will perform simple household tasks such as watering plants, but its early haters were already talking about the prototype as a new Terminator.
“Just because we can, we must?” wondered an article in the U.S. press reflecting on — in their view — Musk’s irresponsible drive to continually challenge the limits of innovation without regard for its potential consequences.
Such furious reactions to the last mile of the technological revolution are not isolated.
Technophobia, digital phobia or cyberphobia are some of the terms that designate a phenomenon — the rejection of technology and everything it entails — that is spreading almost as fast as the developments it opposes.
“The feeling of fear of the unknown and of what takes us out of our comfort zone is normal,” says Viviana Konstantynowsky, a computer engineer and innovation expert. This specialist points out that the pandemic caused these tools to burst into people's lives “without asking permission.”
It is a real invasion that overwhelms and scares, “especially those older people, generations that are not digital natives and feel that they do not have the knowledge and skills necessary to embrace this enormous technological change,” she says.
Security, privacy "at risk"
Even so, the fear of progress is as old as humanity, as Fernando Botella, CEO of Think&Action and author of Welcome to the 4.0 Revolution, reminds us. “Every time there is a disruptive advance that heralds an epochal change, there is opposition, fear and all kinds of disasters are predicted,” he says. “It happened with the printing press, with the steam engine, with the Internet, and so on.”
It's people we should be afraid of.
“What those doomsayers who refuse to relate to the future do not realize is that it is impossible to stop human development,” he adds, assuring that “any past time was always worse".
Technology, says Enrique Dans, professor at IE Business School, is neither good nor bad. “It all depends on how we use it." And he gives an example: “An application like Facebook, originally designed to connect the world, can be used, as we have seen, to confront, manipulate and radicalize it.” These applications depend “on the decisions and responsibility (or lack thereof) of their managers.” That is why, Dans adds, “to be afraid of technology is absurd, because it's people and the use they can make of it that we should be afraid of.”
However, this bad reputation is not entirely unfounded. Issues such as security breaches, cybercrime, excessive technological dependence or the indiscriminate use of users' personal data have yet to be resolved.
Meet the new Luddites
The detractors of technology take different forms and positions. There are those who simply feel insecure because they are overwhelmed by its continuous advances, and there are those who reject it outright because they believe that robots and machines will destroy their way of life.
The latter follow in the footsteps of the Luddites of the first Industrial Revolution, artisans who sabotaged the first mechanized looms because they were destroying jobs. More than 200 years later, the new Luddites are making similar arguments. However, although the progressive robotization of work is an unquestionable reality — Randstad estimates that 52% of current jobs in Spain are at risk of being automated — most studies agree that, correlatively, new positions related to digitalization will be created to replace those lost trades.
But misgivings about technology come not only from those who do not want or do not know how to use it, but also from within the company’s own ranks.
One particular case is that of Singularity, a movement that claims that, sooner rather than later, artificial intelligence will eventually surpass human intelligence. One of its followers, Ray Kurzweil, has even dated that moment: it will be in 2045.
Singularians do not deny technology or advocate its abolition, but they do warn of its potential and seek ways from Singularity University — located in Silicon Valley, the great tech capital, and supported by institutions such as Google and NASA — to reconcile its paths with those of humanity.
I think, therefore AI?
Less optimistic about the human capacity to tame machines are the experts at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge. The CSER works on the basis of the warning given by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom: the existential risk posed by any use of technology whose adverse outcome could prove fatal for humanity.
Technology is not an end in itself.
So, since 2012, they have been studying dangers to the survival of the species, such as extreme technological risks, global catastrophic biological threats, the potential collapse of the ecosystem or problems associated with artificial intelligence.
The problem with so much catastrophist vision is that it prevents us from seeing the friendly side of progress. “Technology allows us to communicate, work, interact, take care of our health... If it weren’t for it, the pandemic would have lasted 10 years,” argues Botella. The technological revolution can also contribute a great deal to decarbonization, climate change, efficient waste management, the dissemination of knowledge, the creation of more livable and sustainable cities, the protection of biodiversity and the fight against inequality.
Likewise, its benefits are already having a direct impact on people’s daily lives. “Technology is not an end in itself, it is a means that allows us to pay for our purchases, take online classes or talk to our loved ones on the other side of the world,” says Konstantynowsky. “And if you’re not in that world you’re missing out on countless things."
Technological fear has devastating effects. “It paralyzes us and prevents us from moving towards our goals,” says Konstantynowsky, who warns about the negative effects of so-called “limiting beliefs.” The expert speaks of “a perception of reality that prevents us from growing, prevents us from facing new challenges and hinders our decision-making.”
How do you overcome these fears? “You have to embrace technology, face it,” advises Botella. And he warns, “If you don’t, you’ll be left out of what today’s society demands.” People should be skilled in both the world of emotions and also digital culture.
Konstantynowsky recommends changing habits, learning new things and unlearning others, as well as “experimenting, because it is impossible to learn anything from these tools if you don’t use them.”
Dans also points in that direction by pointing out that the worst thing a person can do to manage their digital aversion is to adopt the ostrich tactic. “Technology exists together with the human nature and it’s going to take place with you or without you,” he points out. “Ignoring it doesn’t make you safe; on the contrary, it makes you more vulnerable to its effects through ignorance.”