#38: Keep Them Honest

1-2-3 Tech Miscellany

Hi, I’m Scott Bryan. Welcome to 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany, a weekly newsletter about ethics in tech. Each week, I’ll introduce you to 1 ethical dilemma, 2 good news stories and 3 random quotes, photos or other oddities. If you’re not subscribed already, you can do so below.

Reading time: 2 minutes

Part 1 - Ethical Dilemma

Should we create a Hippocratic Oath for technology?

You’re familiar with the Hippocratic Oath already. Doctors have been swearing upon it for millenia.

Do no harm. Help when you can. To the best of your ability.

Other noble professions around the world have oaths, creeds and codes too: lawyers, judges, priests, elected officials, soldiers and journalists to name a few.

But why bother?

Because these positions are important, powerful and corruptible. A pledge keeps them honest — In theory at least.

Developers and designers working in technology build complex systems that impact people’s lives in profound ways everyday.

They need ethical boundaries too.

A code of ethics would be helpful, but it’s not a clear-cut fix.

We know this because it’s already been tried before:

  • In 2016, the IEEE, the world’s largest technical organisation dedicated to advancing technology, introduced the Ethically Aligned Design initiative. It details key principles like human rights and accountability.

  • The Barcelona Declaration of 2018 describes a code of conduct developed by and for those working in the field of AI.

Such oaths, creeds and codes are important to foster a healthy mindset while censuring bad behaviour. But they face an enforcement problem. Since most people in the industry have no formal accreditation, like that of a medical doctor, codes are largely toothless.

A Hippocratic oath for the technology industry could instil strong core values and design principles. But for it to really work, it has to become a mindset, a way of thinking, a set of values shared by all in the industry.

Designers and developers now have the ability to impact human health. So, as they develop the next killer app, a hippocratic oath could help ground their endeavours in a promise to: Do no harm.


Part 2 - Good News Stories

Masks - Stopping The Spread Of Disease, Oh, And Mass Surveillance Too!

We know face masks are one of the best defences against the spread of COVID-19. But they’re also having a second unintended effect — they’re breaking facial recognition algorithms.

Since, companies are already designing algorithms that identify faces using just the eyes, sadly, masks will not be a coup de grace for this disturbing tech.

Nonetheless, privacy advocates must be encouraged to see how lo-tech solutions can confound even the most sophisticated technologies out there.

Read more on The Verge.

AI Can Detect Human Rights Abuses

Swansea University, UK along with a number of human rights groups, are developing a machine-learning system to detect war crimes abuses in Yemen.

The Yemeni Archive is a massive database of videos and photos documenting potential abuses. It would take one person 66,000 hours to comb through the entire archive. By contrast, the machine-learning system could do it in less than 800 hours, on a standard computer.

Human experts would still need to verify the footage after the system filters it, but the gain in efficiency could prove a game changer for human rights organisations. Amnesty International, for example, have a huge archive of footage documenting possible violations in Myanmar.

Read more on MIT Technology Review.


Part 3 - Quotes, Tweets And Other Oddities

  1. Parenting 2020 style

  2. Google’s '“set design” for it’s historic (remote) showdown with US Congress.

  3. Unbelievable foresight from the Daily Mirror, England, 23rd January 1923

Thanks so much for reading.

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Have a great week.