Amie Stepanovich: What Future Are We Building?

As we head into the last few months before the Bay Area Hackfest in November, this blog will feature a series of abstracts of the talk that our speakers, each of them a thoughtful and engaging expert in their field, will be sharing in November.

a photograph of Amie Stepanovich
Amie Stepanovich
U.S. Policy Manager,
Access Now

In the run-up to the DARPA Bay Area SDR Hackfest, I want to ask: are we creating the singularity or a dystopia?

In 2013, I testified to the U.S. Senate on the subject of drones. I discussed their positive potential to combat forest fires and observe weather patterns or facilitate investigative reporting and hostage monitoring. I explained how wonderful I think technology is. I live for days when I’ll be able to access the tools that I now can only read about in science fiction. Technology has huge potential for creating change globally, but, as Uncle Ben would say, with that comes great responsibility.

At Access Now we work at the intersection of technology with human rights. Technology can be harnessed to support democratization and open new opportunities to the most vulnerable among us. But it can also be a force for destruction and wielded against those same people.

Too often we are confronted with tools, technologies, and applications designed and built without full appreciation for this “dual-use” capacity. So the message I most want to share with the creators and builders of technology is the importance of pausing in the rush to the patent office to ask yourself questions about what you’re unleashing on the world. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What are you building? How can it be used, and can the law keep up with those uses?
  • Where is it vulnerable? How hackable is your system? What risks does it create for users?
  • How are you building it? Do you have a diverse community of perspectives to inform what you’re creating?
  • Whom are you talking to? Is your tool user-friendly and are you talking about it in terms your audience will understand?

As technology developers, it is our responsible to do what we can to maximize the good that our new technologies can do while minimizing the bad. And we know from experience that simply being able to answer these cautionary questions is insufficient for stopping your technology from being abused to hurt others or undermine their rights. But thinking them through gives you and those using your technology a head start toward a better future.