Cutting-edge innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence and gene editing are increasingly accessible to the general public. Public accessibility is democratic and can boost innovation by creating a wide pool of people available to test and contribute to technology ecosystems. But accessibility also brings risks of deliberate or accidental misuse of new technologies, and such misuse could cause significant harm.
The accessibility of cutting-edge innovation is most prominent in software. During the past decade, apps, cloud computing, open-source software, low-code development, and other advances have reduced or removed the need to possess specialist hardware and knowledge to run cutting-edge systems. Indeed, advanced digital technology has become so ubiquitous that few people now seem to consider its public availability unusual. But this level of accessibility was not always the norm. For example, one of the most advanced computing systems during World War II was the Engima-code-breaking machine that early computer scientist Dr. Alan Turing developed; however, very few people knew about it, and even fewer people were able to use it.
Although the increasing accessibility of cutting-edge digital technology is a long-term change, evidence suggests that this change is now accelerating. For example, although building machine-learning models once required the skills of highly trained data scientists, automated-machine-learning tools now automate many of the basic tasks of data preparation, model building, and optimization. Such tools enable nonspecialists such as line-of-business data owners and consumers to create the AI models they need for a variety of purposes.
Generative-AI systems take the democratization of AI further. Although imperfect, OpenAI's GPT‑4 (Generative Pre‑trained Transformer 4) large language model is one of the most advanced AI systems in existence and will soon be available to the general public. OpenAI's ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre‑trained Transformer) chatbot is already publicly available, as are numerous other advanced generative-AI tools. Machine-learning expert Dr. Josh Tobin (cofounder and CEO of machine-learning-tool provider Gantry Systems) argues that people with limited specialist knowledge will increasingly be able to repurpose generative AI for new applications. Repurposing an AI system formerly required complex retraining, but developers now need only adjust generative-AI systems' prompts (in the case of ChatGPT, the prompt is the question a user is asking) to obtain the desired behavior.
Although the public accessibility of cutting-edge technologies is most established in digital technologies, it is also evident in other technology fields. For some years, motivated individuals have experimented with using biotech innovations for self-modification (biohacking), but the accessibility of biotechnologies continues to increase alongside progress in the field. For example, biohacker Jo Zayner's small genetic-engineering-education company The Odin sells kits that enable consumers to perform simple gene-editing experiments at home. While developing an article for Vice, Lana Schwartz experimented with a kit from The Odin that includes live human kidney cells and a plasmid containing the DNA coding for an antibiotic-resistance gene. In an interview for the article, Dr. Zayner said that people could, in theory, use commercially available products to genetically modify themselves: "Right now, if you wanted to, you can buy any of the material you need. It's the same material used in clinical trials, the same material that's used by drug companies" ("I Edited Human DNA at Home With a DIY CRISPR Kit," Vice, 26 January 2023; online). All people have to do to access the material for use in genetically modifying themselves, Dr. Zayner explains, is to claim that they are ordering the material for research purposes.
Other fields are also increasing, or could increase, the public accessibility of cutting-edge innovation. Since the early days of 3D printing, 3D-printing technology has been popular among so-called makers who like to experiment with building and modifying various types of machinery and electronics. And as 3D-printing technology continues to evolve, a broader regulatory and cultural trend toward accessible and repairable products has developed. Environmental concerns and a desire to prevent major vendors from creating closed-shop product ecosystems are driving right-to-repair legislation. The change has made repair of products as diverse as cell phones and washing machines more common than it was in the past and in the process made accessible the inner workings of various products (including advanced products such as the latest cell phones and high-end cars).
The public availability of advanced technologies sometimes furthers innovation. Open-source-software advocates have long touted the benefits of open access, and, indeed, open-source software—which multiple parties develop in collaboration—has often proved capable of creating very robust systems (for example, nearly all cloud servers rely on open-source software). Even if members of the public are not building the technology directly, their having access to it can prove critical for discovering use cases and flaws that are unlikely to show up in controlled lab tests. For example, although major vendors such as Meta Platforms and Microsoft are promoting various metaverse use cases, users may be responsible for discovering what the killer apps really are.
The public availability of advanced technologies can also lead to harm. Early versions of generative AI became notorious for enabling people to create deepfake pornography. AI-driven cyberattacks already exist and will likely become more harmful as AI tools improve in the coming years. And part of the reason stakeholders are concerned about runaway AI (for example, various stakeholders recently signed an open letter calling for a pause on the development of advanced systems) is its availability in the wild. Elsewhere, individuals have used 3D printers to create functional guns, and repairable tech may be vulnerable to sabotage. Perhaps most worrisome, the misuse of biotech innovations could lead to new bioweapons or modifications to the human germ line.
Technology is neutral and can typically see use for good or for harm. Rightly or wrongly, societies have moved toward increasing the public accessibility of cutting-edge innovation, in the process making the eventual impact of new technologies more unpredictable than it was in the past.