The Urgency of Harnessing Technology for the Good Challenges All Sectors of Society

11 Nov 2021

The publication of The Home in a Digital Age has stimulated action and debate within and far-beyond private households. A roundtable presentation in Madrid brought together actors from various sectors to share how they are addressing the task of preparing and providing advancing technological tools, educating and assisting the public in their best use, and channeling their benefits to those who need them most. 

The collection of academic papers that form the book The Home in a Digital Age shed light on how AI-empowered technology can be brought to bear on the design and function of people-centered digital homes in the most efficient and ethical manner.  The work fueled a multi-disciplinary discussion at a hybrid event, organized by the Home Renaissance Foundation (HRF), and hosted by the Fundación Telefónica in Madrid on November 5, 2021. 

Antonio Argandoña, co-editor of the volume and academic director of HRF, framed the debate by pointing out an essential element of the studies: “Technology is at our service.”  It must adapt to us, he said, more than we to it.  Nevertheless, he expanded, the use of any technology necessarily holds us within its limitations – we reap its benefits only as far as it reaches – and must be aware of not only what it can do, but also of what it cannot.  He used the analogy of eyeglasses to illustrate his point:  Glasses improve our vision, but only within the range for which they are calibrated.  

Moderator Matilde Santos, professor and member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, described the home as a miniature society containing numerous entities in need of management, asking the panelists to address how technology could serve each of them.

Julio Díez Nicolás, sociologist, university professor, author and member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, pointed out that technology is nothing new.  Human beings, he reflected, have always provided for our own needs by dominating our environment, and increasing our understanding  and capabilities to create new structures and tools by developing from those already available. He distinguished between material culture – those ”technologies” that take advantage of our intelligence to adapt and to thrive, and non-material culture – our collective manner of behaving.  Technology, he asserted, is what we call advances in material culture, from the wheel to robots. He called technology the “principal factor in social change,” and singled out five that he expected to shape the future especially: artificial intelligence; robotics, 3-D printing; holograms; and virtual reality. While it is true that these technologies exponentially faster than earlier human efforts to improve our conditions, he assured, we should not lose sight of the fact that technologies themselves are neutral, and only become “good” or “bad” according to the use that human beings – their creators – give them.

María José Monferrer, engineer and founder of AI-verse, agreed that human choice is crucial to ensuring the best development and deployment of technologies.  First and foremost, she stressed, educated people are needed to create and manage it.  The digital technologies that already exist have the power to generate levels of data, for example, that will soon require even more powerful technologies to process.  People must be trained to make and guide those advances, she alerted, to guarantee that they develop to aid human wellbeing and to protect rather than exploit fundamental rights - to privacy and non-discrimination, for instance.  She further emphasized the importance of getting young people, especially those from groups currently underrepresented in technological fields – women and minorities -excited about the potential of technology to benefit the world, and about their own potential to participate in the transformation by studying the field. She acknowledged some people’s fear that jobs might be lost to more efficient tech alternatives to people, but was adamant that “many more jobs will be created than are rendered obsolete.” A more important risk, she opined, is whether technology will ultimately “make us more free or more enslaved to it.”  The answer to this question, Monferrer explained, will depend on how equipped we are to manage it.

Ignacio Aizpún, director of Fundación Telefónica’s ATAM – an association that specializes in attending to the special needs of people with any type of physical, psychological or situational limitations to their daily activities – concurred that the onus of using technology for the good falls to society.  He pointed out that the technological revolution we are living through is in many ways less dramatic to society than the industrial revolution. Yet, for individual beings, the sheer speed and expansion of technogical overload has created important maladjustments in the way our minds assimilate process, and act on inputs.  These maladjustments also affect people’s moods and interpersonal relations, he explained, even impacting our mental health.

Nevertheless, Aizpún was enthusiastic about the many ways that technology allows organizations like ATAM to “process the information that AI provides us in the form of data to learn as much as possible about each person and his or her situation, health variables, activity, functioning and context.”  Only by activating such data securely, he added, can organizations like ATAM “generate responses and solutions that allow dependent or differently-abled people to continue to live at home in optimal conditions of safety, health and integrity.” 

The final speaker, Alberto San Juan, Director of the Community of Madrid’s Council for Youth, Family and Pro-natal Policy, closed the act asserting that “the family must be cared for as our most precious asset.” He recounted some of the efforts the regional government had put into place to support families overwhelmed by the misuse of technology in their homes, including a school for parents and resources for young people having difficulty managing their use of technology in a healthy and productive way.  

All agreed on the positive closing message: The future will be made by us!