My friend lives on the bottom floor of a two-story apartment complex. Above him lived a person who one evening ran a bath and absentmindedly forgot about it. Sometime later that night, my friend’s spouse noticed the water streaming from the ceiling, down the wall and onto their carpet.
The result? My friend got a hassle and a remodel. Yet, not all instances of inattention are so benign.
Systems thinkers use the term “overshoot” to describe what happens when a system goes beyond its limits.
In their well-known book Limits to Growth, authors Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows explain that, regardless of the scale of the system, there are always three causes of overshoot. “First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that strive to keep the system within limits.”
Returning to my friend’s flooded apartment, the growth of the water flowing into the bathtub constituted the change. Once the water completely filled the tub, a barrier was crossed. Finally, a delay took place — the water had to seep through the top-story apartment’s floor, into the ceiling and down the walls before my friend’s spouse discovered the problem and they both rushed upstairs shouting, “Overshoot!” Or, maybe they were yelling something else.
Sometimes the consequences of going beyond the limits are profound. Those consequences can be aggravated by the third cause of overshoot, delay.
The longer it takes for us to notice a limit has been crossed, the more profound the impact of the overshoot.
I want to begin this three-part series on ethics and technology by asking if we are experiencing a kind of ethical overshoot in the use of our technologies. I’m keenly aware as I begin this discussion that this is not trivial stuff. Many people are experiencing genuine pain because ethical boundaries have been crossed. Some people have lost their lives, victims of “collateral damage” created by the ethical choices we program autonomous technologies to make. And yet, I believe it’s realistic to hold a hopeful view of ethics and technology. Dystopia is not the only possible outcome. That we are capable of more empathy and better collaboration are reasonable conclusions to draw from surveying the opportunities before us.