Futurescope’s vision of tomorrow is typically benign: providing a glimpse of a world where advances in all kinds of technology have improved our lives in all kinds of ways. But as we all know – from nuclear fission to robotics – most major advances also come with an unwelcome, and often destructive, flip side.
Take the new X-ray based body scanner currently under trial at Manchester airport and featured this week on The Engineer Online. Few regular air passengers would object to the introduction of systems that make air travel safer, and their passage through security swifter.
But view such developments alongside the host of hidden camera systems, scanners, and RFID chips that increasingly impinge on every area of our lives, and an unsettling picture begins to emerge. Today these security systems may be making us safer – but tomorrow who knows? If, for instance, the UK were to find itself in the grip of a government bent on clamping down on civil liberties, today’s engineers have bequeathed a handy set of tools for keeping tabs on every member of society. This is less far-fetched than it sounds. Indeed, at a recent conference addressing such concerns The Engineer learned that the only people subjected to more surveillance than the British are the North Koreans.
If a technology designed for fundamentally benign applications is used as tool of oppression it’s perhaps unfair to blame the inventor – but in a world where researchers are increasingly encouraged to consider the commercial applications of their findings, and where the role of Engineers is assuming a new significance, perhaps we all have a duty to think about how to prevent the abuse of systems originally designed with the common good in mind.