Microsoft founder Bill Gates doesn’t understand why people are not concerned about artificial intelligence (AI), agreeing with Elon Musk that it could be one of our biggest existential threats. Microsoft’s research head Eric Horvitz disagrees. Concern over the social and economic impacts of AI is one of the many controversies surrounding emerging technologies.

There are many reasons for this opposition to new technologies. In my new book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, I argue that our sense of what it means to be human lies at the root of some of the skepticism about technological innovation.

The book was launched on 6 July at the 16th Conference of the International Schumpeter Society in Montreal. Given Schumpeter’s comments on innovators and entrepreneurs – he once said that their work opened them up to “social ostracism and to physical prevention or to direct attack” – there could not have been a more suitable venue. Schumpeter wrote this comment in 1912. Which is to say that we have a long history of resisting technological advances. And it’s to history we must turn to understand why this is so.

Image: INKCINCT cartoons

Looking in the past for answers

The book draws from 600 years of technological controversies ranging from attacks on coffee in Medieval Middle East and Europe to today’s debates on the potential impact of AI, drones, 3-D printing, and gene editing.

It argues that society tends to reject new technologies when they substitute for, rather than augment, our humanity. Our desire to humanize technology is captured in the humour of this Bradley’s Bromide: “If computers get too powerful, we can organize them into a committee – that will do them in.”

We eagerly embrace them when they support our desire for inclusion, purpose, challenge, meaning and alignment with nature. We do so even when they are unwieldy, expensive, time-consuming to use, and constantly break down.

For example, the early days of the introduction of tractors in the United States were hardly the paragon of farm efficiency. Tractors offered little advantage over horses. Some opponents argued that their value could be marginally improved if they could reproduce themselves like horses.

What ‘brick phones’ teach us about new technologies

As technologies migrate across countries and continents, their societal implications also change. For example, when Motorola introduced cellphones in the United States in 1983, they were dismissed as toys for the rich. They cost $4,000 (today’s equivalent of $10,000), weighed two pounds, stood at a foot tall, took 10 hours to charge, and delivered only 30 minutes of talk time.

These metrics would have qualified them as a tool for updating one’s Facebook status. They were the butt of jokes, dubbed “brick phones” because of their shape and weight.

The first model was called DyanTAC, standing for Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage. Despite this aggressive and prospective name, the early models did little to augment our humanity, especially for young people. Adoption rates in the United States were glacial, putting it well behind Europe, Asia and Africa.

When cellphones hit Africa, they were reinvented by engineers and diffused using novel business models created by entrepreneurs in Kenya, who pioneered mobile money transfer – called “transfer” instead of “banking” because banks wouldn’t let the telecoms hold money.

  Unique subscriber growth in sub-Saharan Africa

Today cellphones are no longer just a communication tool. They are serving as banks, schools, clinics, and vehicles for spreading transparency and democracy. They augment our humanity in ways that could not have been anticipated in the early 1980s. They are also serving as a role model for improvements in other sectors such as off-grid electricity supply.

And now we have more than just cellphones. We live in exciting times where technological diversity and creativity offer limitless opportunities to expand the human potential for all, not just for certain exclusive sections of society.

When technologies ‘give back’

Innovation and Its Enemies shows that resistance to new technologies is heightened when the public perceives that the benefits of new technologies will only accrue to a small section of society, while the risks are likely to be widespread. This is why technologies promoted by large corporations often face stiff opposition from the public.

Similarly, new technologies face great opposition when the public perceives that the risks are likely to be felt in the short run and the benefits will only accrue in the long run. So telling a skeptical public that new technologies will benefit future generations does not protect us from the wrath of current ones.

What is the way forward? The answer might lie in the much-abused phrase “social entrepreneurship”. For many, this term is a euphemism for a charity or nongovernmental organization. But what is really needed is to bring the “social” back into “entrepreneurship”.

This means exploring new ways by which enterprises can be seen as contributing to the common good. The fact that enterprises use new technologies to enhance their competitiveness makes it difficult for the general public to separate technology from its uses – for better or for worse.

The fate of new technologies will continue to be determined by the balance of power in society. For nearly 400 years, Ottoman rulers opposed the printing of the Koran. Doing so would have undermined the role of religious leaders as sources of cultural codes. But when the printed word seemed to reinforce the power of the rulers they slowly went against previous fatwas banning the printing of the Koran.

Innovation and Its Enemies provides many other examples where the acceptable of new technologies is dependent on whether they reinforce rather than undermine incumbent practices. The dilemma facing modern society is whether reinforcing existing practices undermines society.

New technologies are essential to fostering economic growth, meeting human needs, and protecting the environment. New clean energy technologies such as solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, for example, are critical to reducing carbon dioxide emission and addressing the challenges of climate change.

  Price of solar panel per watt
Image: Earth Policy Institute/Bloomberg

But their adoption is often held back by the incumbent industries and vested interests. The dilemma is that in many cases clinging to the old may in fact be in conflict with our humanity, especially in regard to our search for affinity with nature. As the American composer John Cage aptly put it: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

This article is based on Calestous Juma's new book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies