As a Vice President of Engineering at OpenText, Guruprasad Sathyamurthy thinks often about the nature of his team’s work and on the impact of the products they bring to the global marketplace. In his latest blog, he reflects on the responsibilities that tech vendors bear beyond the mere functions of their products.
Advancements for humanity
The advancement of technology has brought about drastic changes in the way things are done across practically every domain, including manufacturing, communication, transportation, healthcare, robotics, and space science to name a few. Just a few decades back, some of these changes couldn’t have been imagined. These changes, whether at the societal level or at the individual level, have made a significant impact in how we see and do things. There is no doubt that there will be further enhancements in technology over the coming years in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Data Science, and other areas, each of which will make new things possible, some of which we can anticipate now, and many which we can’t.
Broadly speaking, these technological advancements have made life much easier for us humans. For example, advancements in the field of medicine have increased our life expectancy and, in general, improved the quality of the lives we lead. Improved communication and transportation have brought people closer. Advances in rocket technology, satellites and space science have not only helped in navigation systems, weather predictions, and communication, but have also furthered our knowledge about our neighbors in the solar system.
Tech’s mixed blessings
Apart from its advantages, however, a closer look at the changes sparked by these advancements and their offshoots – whether at the societal or the individual level – can raise concerns as well. At the societal level, these concerns include the pollution that is being released into the environment, the challenges of countries and people (mis)using these technologies to harm others, and the widening divide between the world’s haves and have nots. At the individual level, improved access to communications tools – particularly mobile phones and social media apps – offer a mix of benefits and challenges, bringing people closer together, yet also driving divisions amongst them. They are also inducing anxiety and increasing stress levels. Excessive usage and psychological addictions are causing physical health issues like eye problems, reduced physical activity leading to obesity, sleep disorders, and other problems. The information overload and associated multi-tasking associated with today’s proliferation of tools and information has reduced our attention spans and ability to concentrate.
Our access to such an abundance of information at our fingertips has nearly eliminated our need to commit facts and data to memory as we needed to in the past; items such as phone numbers, simple math, and even driving routes to get to routine destinations no longer require memorization. While on vacation, we now tend to spend more time experiencing our surroundings through our smartphone camera lenses, obsessed with taking photos to share on our social media. In the process, we don’t enjoy the moment. Apart from missing out the moment, our ability to see our surroundings holistically is diminished. There have been numerous studies indicating that immersing ourselves in new places and experiences help the brain to build new neural connections, enhancing our memory and otherwise keeping our brains active and healthy. We face a very real risk that some of these advancements are making us lose out on these aspects of natural brain development and upkeep.
Pondering the benefits
Now, you may be thinking: why I am saying these things, reflecting on both the good and bad consequences of technology? I believe that there is benefit in talking about technological advancements, and in leveraging them in whatever way we can. That said, while pondering technology’s benefits, I also believe that the following questions are important to contemplate:
- Is technology a boon or bane?
- Is technology making us less human?
Of course, these questions have no easy answers. Neither “yes” nor “no” suffice, as the answers lie somewhere in between. Both companies and individuals need to make a concerted effort to ensure that we keep our planet – our only home – habitable for generations to come.
Today, most companies think above and beyond the products they make and set specific goals to safeguard against any harmful impacts. These goals lead in turn to taking definitive steps to keep the overall good of the society in mind. We at OpenText have our Zero-In Initiative, with a clear commitment to reducing three types of impact from our products and processes: Footprint (reducing our footprint and promoting sustainability in every possible way), Barriers (having a work environment with Zero Barriers) and Compromise (transparency, accountability, and a refusal to compromise on our goals or values).
By their nature, all companies that build products invest in measures that keep the good of their consumers at the forefront. As a simple example, the car that I drive will give an indication during a long drive that it is time for me to take a break. Though this seems trivial, taking breaks is very important during long-distance driving. Likewise, in every product or technology there will be aspects of use that companies can explicitly warn users about, so as to prevent customers from any complications that can come from prolonged use or over-reliance on the product.
Innovation for today…and tomorrow
As we build new products, we can innovate in ways that will benefit our future generations without nullifying the benefits of technological advancements of the past couple of decades. We must do what we can to avoid introducing new problems or challenges for future generations. As engineers, we have an important role to play in building technology that not only benefits us now, but into the future. This means designing to avoid long-term damage to our consumers in the long-run. This includes minimizing the risk of misuse, whether intentional or accidental. We need to think constantly about the bells and whistles we can incorporate to avoid potential problems to individuals or their societies. Even for products that are already in use, we should be thinking of what we can do to reduce any potential damage they can do.
In summary, we should be using technology and not vice-versa. What we do with technology should be for the good of society, as well as for that of individuals. There are innumerable opportunities for us to innovate in this direction, to build safety nets in our products and solutions that ensure there are no negative side effects from the use of the product.
I hope that this short essay helps open our doors to thinking as to how we can be the good engineers that our current users – as well as future generations of users – will look up to.