The genie’s out

Emerging technologies bring with them new ethical and regulatory challenges

What do automated cars, the "Liberator" gun, assembled largely with a 3D printer, and Google Glass have in common? They are all exciting new technologies that could transform our lives, from the way we commute to how we interact with our environment. The changes they could bring about are deep and systemic. In that, they pose an immense challenge to lawmakers across the world, who have, at best, an indifferent record in adapting existing regulatory frameworks to keep pace with technological innovation.

Consider the driverless car. The concept of a car that drives itself seems a natural development, if one that begets a guttural reaction against surrendering control of a vehicle to a computer programme. But for regulators, it poses other challenges. In case of an accident, for instance, how is blame to be affixed? Similarly, the fact that the 3D printer — in any case a disruptive device that could entirely upset modern manufacturing — was used to create a plastic gun spawns a conundrum for lawmakers. Guns are a controlled device for a reason, and the power to produce them could shift to anyone with an internet connection and a 3D printer. Yet, now that the possibility exists, it may already be too late to put the genie back in the lamp. Google Glass, which many are claiming to be the beginning of an augmented human race, has run into trouble too. Bars, casinos and movie theatres are queuing up to ban it. But given the "cool" cachet that Glass seems to have acquired, it seems the privacy questions raised by it will have to be addressed through other means.

As these technologies are honed for regular use, negotiating the ethical and regulatory challenges will become ever more difficult — and the need to deal with them, more urgent.

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