Thinking innovatively about the risks of tech innovation

January 12, 2016 by Andrew Maynard, Arizona State University, The Conversation

If you've been following this month's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you'll know with absolute certainty that the future is cool, shiny and stuffed to the brim with "must-have" gadgets.

Reading the ebullient reports, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything other than overflowing optimism for how technology will transform our lives. And admittedly, it's hard to imagine how smart shoes or a rollable TV screen could possibly be bad for us. From virtual reality so "there" you can almost touch it, to the Internet of every imaginable thing, we're being dazzled by the seemingly infinite possibilities that modern tech has to offer.

But I wonder whether, in all the buzz and hype, we're in danger of losing sight of the darker side of . CES and similar expos represent the glitzy face of deeper trends that could be destructive if developed without a sophisticated appreciation of .

All technologies come with risks

With the uncritical enthusiasm around CES, it's easy to ignore the potential consequences of irresponsible technology innovation. It's even easier to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face in developing technologies that are good for society as a whole, and don't just enrich those who create them.

Take for example robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – three trends that were amply represented at the show. While each holds the potential to profoundly change our lives for the better, these technologies are by no stretch of the imagination intrinsically safe. Fears over the consequences of irresponsible AI development have already been widely voiced, and the rapid rise of the Internet of Things threatens to make everyday objects vulnerable to cyber attacks. And all three have the potential to widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged.

In today's evolving social marketplace of needs, wants and opinions, technologies must be designed to navigate a complex landscape of potential risks if they are to succeed and be beneficial. And it's not just health and environmental risks that are important – potential threats to beliefs, community, culture, even sense of identity, are becoming increasingly relevant.

Unfortunately, even if innovators want to steer safely through this evolving landscape, there's remarkably little help at hand. The ways we're taught to handle risk – even how we think about risk – are often as antiquated as the technologies being showcased at places like CES are innovative.

Take regulations. They're inevitably built around previous technologies: "dumb" digital systems, for instance – gadgets that don't communicate through the Internet, or medical devices that don't talk back. When novel technologies arise – the IoT, for example, cloud-based AI or wearables – the overwhelming impulse is to maintain the status quo by shoehorning them into existing frameworks. They're usually not remotely the right shape, never mind being an adequate fit.

Sadly, this lack of creativity and flexibility in how potential risks are understood and addressed only increases the chances of things going wrong. Not only does it create uncertainty around the safe development of new products, but it obscures potential pitfalls.

What we're lacking – and what we desperately need – is parallel innovation in how we think and act on risk, to provide the insights and tools to navigate an increasingly hazardous future.

How do we rethink risk?

Here in the Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab, we're developing a new approach to risk that is designed to open up new ideas and possibilities. We call it Risk Innovation.

Our inspiration is technology innovation itself. Imagine what might happen if we approach risk the way entrepreneurs approach innovation – combining creativity, technical know-how and market savvy to develop products that people are willing to invest in?

Start with the idea of "value." Innovation is typically defined as creating value that someone is willing to pay for. Can a similar approach work for risk?

One way to do this is to consider risk as a threat to value, and not just in the ways value is usually thought of when assessing risk, such as health, the environment or financial gain/loss. We need to also include less tangible but equally important measures of value – well-being, environmental sustainability, deeply held beliefs, even a sense of cultural or personal identity.

This in itself is an innovative way of thinking about risk. It opens up new ways of imagining the risk landscapes that new technologies both face and help to form.

Yet innovation is more than good ideas. To be successful, innovative products need to demonstrate market success. So what's the equivalent of the "market" when it comes to risk?

To me, it's the individuals, communities and organizations – the constituents (including developers and manufacturers) – who have something of tangible value (not to be confused with "values") that is potentially threatened, and that they are willing to invest in protecting.

This "value" may be possessions, employment, profit, health – the types of value that we typically think about in the context of risk. But it may also be professional standing, branding, cultural and social identity, equity and equality, lifestyle, deeply held beliefs and opinions, or sense of worth.

These more personal and social aspects of "value" are often overlooked when it comes to risk. But they are critically important to the decisions people and organizations make, and to what they think is worth protecting. Any attempt to develop new technologies that ignores them is supremely vulnerable to failure, because it runs the danger of inadvertently threatening what people are prepared to fight for.

Reframing risk yields benefits for innovation

When risk is seen through the lens of innovation in this way, what begins to emerge is a way of thinking about it that complements technology innovation; we open up pathways to socially and economically beneficial and successful development.

Rather than framing risk as a barrier to progress, innovation transforms it into a way of supporting beneficial and sustainable progress.

This is why it's so important that we don't become so bedazzled by emerging technologies that we fail to see their downsides, and how to successfully navigate them.

Of course, it's exciting to see the latest tech coming over the horizon at events like CES, and I'm a firm believer in the need for creativity and innovation in developing technologies that will help improve and enhance our lives. (And yes, for someone out there, I'm sure smart shoes will be a life-enhancing experience.)

Yet without parallel in how we handle the potential downsides – especially in today's increasingly interconnected and complex world – how will we ensure there's true, lasting value beneath the glitz?

Explore further: Why a famous technologist is being branded a Luddite

Related Stories

Why a famous technologist is being branded a Luddite

December 28, 2015

On December 21, the company SpaceX made history by successfully launching a rocket and returning it to a safe landing on Earth. It's also the day that SpaceX founder Elon Musk was nominated for a Luddite Award.

Gadgets get smarter, friendlier at CES show

January 3, 2016

From drones, cars and robots to jewelry, appliances and TVs, the new technology on display at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show promises to be smarter and friendlier than ever.

Recommended for you

Computer learns to recognize sounds by watching video

December 1, 2016

In recent years, computers have gotten remarkably good at recognizing speech and images: Think of the dictation software on most cellphones, or the algorithms that automatically identify people in photos posted to Facebook.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

NIPSZX
not rated yet Jan 12, 2016
Innovators use security as a choke hold on the consumer. To prevent cyber attacks companies promote and rely upon updates to keep firmware up to date. This security prevents most of the old attacks from penetrating the new updated software. BUT, companies use this tactic to promote future sales of newer and different products. There should be a warranty on tech products that protects the consumer from falling into the software update trap. I would rather have my tech attacked then have to rely on updates that slow or damage my hardware. Plus, what about future updates that render the hardware useless with no way to revert back? What about a needed update that is too large for the previous build of hardware? These are scenarios that consumers must think about when purchasing a product. Consumers are lucky to have hardware that is finally built to last, but with software that purposefully renders the hardware useless by it's inventors to promote more business, we are unlucky!
NIPSZX
not rated yet Jan 12, 2016
I definitely agree with your conclusion that the glitz wears off over time. This is where many IndieGogo and Kickstarter campaigns take advantage of the consumer. If you purchase technology without reading 50+ reviews and give the product time to come to market you are jumping into murky waters. This only adds to the fuel of the "quick newer innovation" buy risk that tech had in the last 5 years. Now you do not only have to worry about a newer better product coming to market at a cheaper price, you also have to worry about the reliability of your product over time. Sometimes a tech product doesn't exactly break, but it can slow down or not work perfectly like it once did before. Some would say this is a normal buying risk, I beg to differ, and I think companies can build a good solid reputation by standing out and building products that are not only cutting edge but also work perfectly for long periods of time. Apple has 75% of this equation right and they are improving daily.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.