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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dealing with complex new technologies

Kenneth Rogoff's piece in Project syndicate is very provocative.

In this piece, he identifies that the gulf oil spill underscores a much more universal issue:
The disaster, however, poses a much deeper challenge to how modern societies deal with regulating complex technologies. The accelerating speed of innovation seems to be outstripping government regulators’ capacity to deal with risks, much less anticipate them.
This issue is not limited to drilling for oil. It basically touches upon every aspect of a rapidly changing human existence where change is driven by leveraging technological progress. Every technology deployed to improve human existence has been accompanied by risk and trade offs. The harnessing of fire was one of the most monumental technological achievements  in all of human history. We are still dealing imperfectly with its risks.

It is easy to toggle between health care and non-health care worlds when reflecting upon upon positive and negative impacts of technology and innovation. Petrochemical based energy has been the engine which has released vast portions of humankind from the bondage of existences which are brutish and brief. In some respects, the present oil disaster can be likened to the rare horrible reactions to a miracle drugs such as drugs used to treat HIV. Should we ban abacavir since it can cause devastating and life threatening allergic reactions even when the number of people whose lives are saved vastly outweighs the rare and devastating impact of idiosyncratic reaction?

Within medicine, a dizzying array of technologies have been deployed within the past 100 years. When the risks of everyday life were so common that no one was particularly surprised when would randomly strike down healthy persons, risks of deploying innovative approaches to the treatment of life threatening illness was a no brainer. However, as we have decreased the risks of everyday life, we have also simultaneous altered expectations as to the promise of innovation and the benignity of its deployment.

Deployment of technologies sufficiently powerful to make a meaningful impact on human existence will always  be associated with risk. We will never be able to define rational policies and approaches to managing the risks until we recognize that there will always be trade offs and appreciate and understand both the quantitative  and emotional elements.

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