‘Irrational Exuberance and the “FATE” of Technology’

‘Irrational Exuberance and the “FATE” of Technology’

Vijay Kumar

In 2003, a company known as Theranos launched on the claim that it was poised to revolutionize medical diagnostics. Thanks to preparatory software and automation technologies, the company would be able to identify a variety of diseases and disorders from an unprecedentedly small drop of a patient’s blood.

Yesterday, Theranos formally announced its dissolution, after years of scandal stemming from allegations that their technology simply could not do what it promised.

Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering, thinks this is an example of “irrational exuberance.” To protect the public from the consequences when these lofty ideals don’t comport with reality, he argues that new technologies must be increasingly thought of through the lens of FATE: fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics.

At the Communications of the ACM Blog, he outlines how Theranos is just the tip of the iceberg: the tech industry is rife with examples of companies imbuing software with almost magical abilities when it comes to their promise to revolutionize any given industry.

The promise of the self-driving car epitomizes the potential dangers of this magical thinking. Recent legal battles over nascent navigation software suggest companies are ignoring the larger social context in which drivers and pedestrians live in the hope that advances in computational abilities will make their safety concerns moot.

The Uber-Waymo trial led to the release of a treasure trove of documents that were truly shocking in this regard. It reveals a culture that appears to prioritize releasing the latest software over testing and verification, and one that encourages shortcuts. This may be acceptable for a buggy operating system for a phone that can be later patched, but it should be totally unacceptable for software that drives a car.

The reason for this irrational exuberance may have its roots in the exponential growth in computing and storage technologies predicted by Gordon Moore five decades ago. The fact that just over a decade ago, smartphones, cloud computing, and ride-sharing seemed like science fiction and technologies like 3D printing and DNA sequencing were prohibitively expensive, has led to a culture of extrapolation which has been fueled by exponential growth. Advances in creating programs that can play board games like chess and recent results with Alpha Go and Alpha Zero have been mind-boggling. But unfortunately, from this comes the extrapolation that it is only a question of time before we conquer general intelligence.

Continue reading at Blog@CACM.