Shortly before she died, my mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, asked me to take her to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. As we were walking around the museum, I was astonished to see a desk-sized metal device, painted in utilitarian black and white, and packed with electrical circuits, dials and precise moving parts.
The caption described it as an IBM Hollerith D11 automatic tabulator. Why was this precursor to the modern computer displayed so conspicuously in this memorial to one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century?
During the Holocaust, automatic tabulators made it possible for the Nazis to analyse census records and identify those with Jewish blood with great speed and precision. This led my mother and several hundred thousand others to be packed into freight trains and distributed among camps across Europe.
As the Nazis’ eager adoption of the tabulator reveals, computing power, like almost any engineered product, can be used for hugely destructive ends. It may be tempting to conclude from this that engineers are to blame for society’s biggest problems and that their inventions will inevitably cause more suffering than good. Judging from much of today’s media coverage of the technology sector, this is a trap that many are falling into.
Whilst it is true that social networks can distort our view of reality, smartphones have addictive properties and algorithms can make biased decisions that affect our health, wealth and freedom, it does not follow that engineering is bad and progress impossible.
As I argue in my book Make, Think, Imagine, such pessimism is ungrounded and dangerous. In fact, it was my mother’s refusal to dwell on the past and her insistence that the best was always yet to come that inspired me to become an engineer.
Throughout my career as an engineer and businessman, I have been an active witness to the steadily growing power that computers have to augment our thinking prowess. In recent decades, they have transformed every aspect of our lives.
From the moment I get up, my life is shaped by calculations. The food on my breakfast table arrives fresh as a result of complex global supply chains. The electrical grid that powers my home seamlessly adapts to the morning surge in demand.
A glance at my smartphone brings my emails, as well as news reports, Tweets, weather forecasts and much more. The engineering accomplishments that make all this possible are the most impressive examples of technological progress.
Much of the excitement, and the fear, surrounding computing innovation today is focused on machine learning, a form of ‘artificial intelligence’. Unlike traditional computer programmes, these algorithms learn from previous experiences and they are now finding important applications in scientific discovery, medical diagnosis, legal arbitration and much more besides.
We must remember that these systems can still only perform well on very specific tasks. Anyone worried about the arrival of supremely powerful artificially intelligent machines should consider the challenges of maintaining machines even today — the unpredictable behaviour of an office printer is a good example.
When it comes down to it, we still don’t truly understand what general-purpose intelligence is and it is still the case that a single human brain contains within it a greater number of synaptic connections than there are electronic connections in all the computers in the world today.
Computers are the most powerful tools that we have built. They support us in everything we do, from the creation of works of art, to the education of our children and the recycling of our waste. Their transformative potential is obvious, but I am clear that they remain our servants and not our masters.
The respected AI researcher Zoubin Ghahramani expressed this most clearly when he told me that AI algorithms are “just tools, ultimately in human hands for doing things that are useful for people.”
So we can choose to use these tools to cause harm or we can use them to elevate our thinking. Most critically, we know how to steer these choices: it is about involving much more diverse teams in the innovation of hardware and software, designing appropriate regulations, and maintaining constant vigilance for evidence of wrong-doing.
Get all this right and computers will help continue, or even accelerate, the progress we are making towards a better world. Despite the atrocities inflicted upon my mother’s generation, I have no doubt that the constructive applications of computing power still greatly outweigh the destructive ones.
Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation is published by Bloomsbury. Lord Browne will be speaking at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on August 23