No, Feynman Wasn’t Joking

Our world, our knowledge, our responsibility

13 December 2013
Photo: IEEE

Richard Feynman, the famous American theoretical physicist, said in a 1955 address to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, “Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad—but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.”

Markers of technology progress for over 60 years have shown exponential growth. This makes the responsible use of technology all the more important. There are countless instances in information and communications technology—the hacking of wireless medical devices being a perfect example—where the deficiencies of these advances are being exposed.

I believe that the IEEE community is uniquely qualified and positioned to aid in addressing these issues—and that two strategic priorities identified earlier this year by the IEEE Board of Directors can provide principles to guide us.

The first priority is to provide agile forums for discussion, development, and implementation of emerging technologies. The second priority is to call on the IEEE community to use its technology-related insight to provide society with innovative, practical guidance on technical issues. Together, they suggest a framework for assessing emerging technologies and the issues they raise and for responsibly communicating their positive and negative impacts.

You, as an IEEE member, can help write the instructions Professor Feynman said we lack. It is likely that you are already involved within your local section or with one or more societies or an IEEE affinity group. If so, your participation probably stemmed from your vocational interests and passion for technology. These communities are for you—make the most of them. But don’t just discuss what’s happening now. Discuss what might happen next.

Examine the technologies in your areas of interest that are emerging and/or converging. Form or join an agile forum and, with other members, foster the continued evolution of those technologies. Come together formally or informally, share your insights and ideas with colleagues within the global IEEE community, and map out the responsibilities and actions for those who take part in your agile forum. This “road-mapping” activity is the first step, I believe, in creating the professor’s instructions.

As the population of our planet grows, however, emerging/converging technologies will—as they are developed and implemented—raise questions of responsibility and ethics. Answers to those questions, in turn, will shape guidelines and policies that define a second step in creating Feynman’s instructions.

These two steps define our charge to make others aware of how best to evolve a “planet-friendly” technology path. As technologists, it is our responsibility to employ our expertise and assist others in making the decisions that will positively affect our lives—and the lives of future generations.

As I said earlier, IEEE is both well qualified and well positioned to engage in these efforts. We must remain impartial, however, relying on the sound fundamentals of our respective professional pursuits.

Leaders of the public, private, and academic worlds often hear competing voices shouting instructions about the choices to be made regarding a particular technology. Each voice carries its own views, shaped by its stake in the outcome. It is incumbent on all within the IEEE community to ensure that our voice, based on thoughtful consideration of the technical facts, remains clear and unbiased; only then will it stand out.

Scientific knowledge brings with it power, as Richard Feynman pointed out—which makes IEEE’s global community quite formidable, indeed. Right now, in more than 160 countries, IEEE members are working on initiatives that may one day change the way in which human beings interact with one another and the world around them. For me it is a source of great pride and great humility to realize that our efforts today will help create a better tomorrow.

I do not have answers to all the questions that will accompany promising new technologies. I do not believe that any individual does. I do believe, though, that by working together and exchanging ideas, insights, and perspectives, we will find those answers.

Please feel free to share your comments and thoughts with me at or through my blog.

pstaecker Peter Staecker
IEEE President and CEO
IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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