Welcome to Dawn or Doom

Dr. Gerry McCartney

Dr. Gerry McCartney, director of Dawn or Doom

Executive Vice President for Purdue Online Learning, Purdue University Oesterle Professor of Technology

Throughout modern history, technological advances occurred on what seemed to be a steady and straight line. Mechanized factories, automobiles, air travel, transistors – all were disruptive technologies that had remarkable effects on society, but they grew at a manageable enough rate that overall our societies were able to integrate them and understand and mitigate their dangers with reasonable efforts.

Now, however, what seemed to be a straight line of steady progression looks more like the early slope of an exponential shift.

If you look at a graphic representation of exponential growth, you'll notice that for a long time the plot line is flat and virtually indistinguishable from linear growth. Then – suddenly, it seems – the growth line begins curving sharply upward.

What if what we thought was linear societal change driven by technology is actually exponential? What does that mean for us? Will the changes advance too fast for us to be able to recognize or mitigate the dangers? Can legislators hope to write effective laws regarding the technologies? Do we know enough about the science that these technologies are based on to answer even fundamental questions?

Consider two examples of recent technologies: social media and mobile devices. Although now fully ingrained in our culture, Facebook was opened for anyone to join in September 2006, just five months after the launch of Twitter. If Facebook and Twitter were human, they would now only be teens in junior high school. The iPhone, which was a major factor in launching the global smartphone market, was introduced in September 2007. The iPad is only nine years old.

In the tech world, these are considered "mature" technologies, but we are still coming to terms with the societal effects of social media and mobile devices, from a renewed discussion of race in the United States driven by mobile videos of police brutality to their effects on our elections and democracy, not to mention presidential discourse. And that’s just in this country. Similar effects are manifest globally.

Just these two broad areas of technology have transformed our world in less than a decade.

What will emerging technologies such as big data, robotics, artificial intelligence, the "Internet of things," bioengineering, and space travel mean for us in the next decade or two?

We launched the Dawn or Doom conference at Purdue in September 2014 to explore the effects of these and other rapidly emerging technologies, bringing together the nation's leading experts in order to kick-start a rational, fact-based dialogue on campus and beyond.