How to deal with the dark side of innovation

How to deal with the dark side of innovation

Published On:
May 22, 2023

Two weeks ago, while teaching my course in Business Innovation, one of my graduate students at Bangkok University’s Master in Business Innovation (MBI) program asked me an interesting question: “What if an innovative technology has the potential also to cause harm to humans or even larger parts of humanity? As an inventor, should we then not develop it?” This question alludes to an intriguing dilemma that innovators often face: while they intend an innovation to make meaning and do good, it usually also has an imminent potential to be misused for evil intent. Today, let’s discuss this dilemma and innovation’s good, bad, and dark sides.

The good side of innovation

Innovation means positive change and progress that improves people’s lives and benefits society. It is the motor that propels us into a better future by giving us new tools, methods, and technologies that provide new economic growth and rejuvenating impulses to society.

Think of how you had to use a landline to make phone calls 30 years ago and how you use your mobile phone nowadays not only to make calls but essentially take care of many other aspects of your life (like taking photos, writing messages, dictating memos, looking up information, reading your news, listening to your favorite music, watching videos and movies, and playing games, among others). Would you want to return to the old days and live without your smart mobile phone?

The bad side of innovation

According to the Yin-Yang principle, everything good in the world also has a complementing shadow side and vice versa. So what’s the bad side of innovation? It’s that, ”The world hates change, yet if it is the only thing that has brought progress.” (Charles F. Kettering)

So why’s that? Every change, even a positive one, departs from an established status quo. It forces us to leave behind some customary and traditional ways of doing things and gets us out of our comfort zones. And most people (ca. 84%) resist doing that, at least initially. Moreover, disruptive technological changes threaten the established economic, political, and social status quo by upending the well-set macroeconomic equilibrium. And that destruction of the old order is the bad side of innovation, at least for those rooting for tradition and preservation in the eternal tug of war with the forces propagating and instigating innovation and progressive change.

The dark side of side of innovation

Almost all disruptive innovative technologies (tools, methods, and practices) have an imminent potential to not only make meaning but also be misused and cause unforeseen harm. That’s the dark (ugly, dangerous) side of innovation — and it has been with us across the ages:

  • We usually make good use of a knife to cut food during preparation and consumption, but some people use one to kill.
  • A new medical drug has the potential to cure illness, restore your health, and prolong your life — or to poison you (if you take an overdose).
  • Electricity has illuminated and powered the world but it is also used to execute a convict or can accidentally electrocute someone.

Given these evident potentialities to harm humans, would you, therefore, want to ban the use of all knives or medical drugs? Or would you like to live in a world without electricity? Would you perhaps like to travel back in time to stop the first person who came up with the original idea to introduce each of these once-progressive innovations? Most probably not, as the benefits of each of these former innovations overcompensate the rare cases of misuse.

Nevertheless, throughout human history, we can find in-NO-vation doomsayers and apologists who reject promising new technologies (such as genomics or biotechnology) and ask politicians to use new legislation or regulation to stop them. What’s behind this fierce resistance to disruptive technologies and innovative change? A combination of the fear of the unknown and the fear of losing a privileged position and power as an individual, company, or political force. And probably inertia and laziness, too.

Would it help to try to prevent an innovation to come to life?

Given the evident potentialities of most innovations to cause harm to human beings, should we stop innovating? Or, as innovators, should we hold back innovative know-how that can cause good and harmful? Or even has the potential to pose a threat to humanity in its entirety? I answer with a resounding: “No.” And the reason why I say it is because of a key sentence in the drama The Physicists by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt :  

“What is thought cannot be unthought.”
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Adapted from Britannica, here is a synopsis of Dürrenmatt’s comedy-dramatic play:

The play The Physicists describes the ethical dilemma of a physicist to put out his scientific knowledge that could potentially destroy the world if unscrupulous politicians gained access to it. So, the ethical physicist Möbius has voluntarily committed himself to a mental asylum to prevent the world from obtaining and misusing his invention. There, he meets two other physicists (who are, in reality, rival spies, one representing the East and the other the West, each competing to obtain Möbius’s secret). Towards the end of the play, they all realize, to their great surprise, that the megalomaniacal psychiatrist running the asylum has secretly listened in on their conversations, stolen Möbius’s secrets, and is now capable of controlling the world. Realizing they have both lost their freedom and control of the know-how, the three physicists resign to their fate and assume their madmen’s roles.

So, because “what is thought cannot be unthought,” the idea of a new disruptive technology is out there in the world and cannot be unthought. Even if the inventor chooses not to act on the disruptive idea, sooner rather than later, another person will come up with the same idea (or gain access to the inventor’s original one), act upon it, and turn it into an innovation with the potential to harness its tremendous good aspects although being aware of its potential bad, dangerous, or dark side. This danger is even more prevalent in our modern innovation world as nowadays, most groundbreaking, disruptive innovation efforts are collaborative efforts where even an ingenious inventor needs the help of others to bring an idea to life.

How to best hedge against the dark side of innovation?

In the past years, prominent businesspeople such as Google’s co-founder Larry Page or Elon Musk have warned us of the potential dangers that artificial intelligence (AI) might pose for humans and the related problem of technological singularity (i.e., the point in time where AI and intelligent machines can create innovations without any human involvement, and then potentially gain complete dominion over us). So should we stop the development of AI solutions in its tracks now? Or, more generally speaking, as an innovator, should we hold back innovative know-how that has the potential to cause both good and harm?

I believe that because “What is thought cannot be unthought,” we cannot —and should not— stop AI on its track to prevent the potential dark side of this innovative technology. Let’s face it: There is no perfect way to stop it, as some players will eventually act and move forward with its development.

So, the next best thing we can do is to hedge against the dark side of disruptive technology innovation as well as we can. But how? We need to:

  • Elevate the collective levels of human consciousness to ensure that a sufficient number of leaders in business, politics, and society act and make decisions for the greater good.
  • Have the key players in AI (and other emerging Sixth Wave industry niches) develop ethical agreements on evolving the technology to harness its goods while controlling potential dangers.
  • Define, establish, and defend “red lines” of what actions constitute a clear breach of the agreed upon ethical technology development norms that require the imposition of severe sanctions and penalties.
  • Establish new social contracts to alleviate the negative consequences of technological change on society (such as redistributing some of the wealth gained from AI technology to compensate for the loss of jobs caused by it).

Conclusion: Innovate — or someone else will

Of course, all the aforementioned noble principles are easier said than done. But what’s the option? After all, what is thought cannot be unthought. And even if you don’t choose to act upon a disruptive idea, someone else eventually will — and might have less noble intentions than you. So, innovate to do good while hedging against innovation’s dark side. There’s no option.

  • What meaningful innovations do you target with your company’s innovation agenda in 2023? How can we help you achieve your innovation targets? Contact us to tell us more and get a free consultation session.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2023.