Do No Evil

The case for ethics in tech

In light of all that is going on in the world these days, writing this post feels somewhat trite.

My wife is a front line health care worker, and with two small kids, trying to keep on top of a pet project, feels a little indulgent.

Nonetheless, life goes on, and I’ve committed to writing article every week so don’t want to disappoint myself.

Today’s post is a pithy introduction to the importance of ethics in tech.

Reading time: 3 minutes

"It’s time we take ethics seriously.”

Cennydd Bowles

In 1953, the vicious Korean War was halted with the signing of an armistice between North and South Korea.

To separate the two sides, a kind of no-man’s land was created. It was called the Demilitarised Zone.

At 4km wide and 250km long, the DMZ has, for almost seventy years, kept the waring factions apart.

But not without unintended consequences - entirely favourable ones at that.

The forces locking humans out of this ribbon thread of land, have gradually turned the DMZ into a thriving ecosystem. Today, it is a haven for thousands of plants and animals, extinct or endangered elsewhere on the peninsula.

Unintended Consequences

Almost every action we take introduces the risk of unintended consequences. But unlike the above example, much of the time, it’s without a favourable outcome.

Cultutral theorist Paul Virilio, knew this better than most when he said,

"When you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash...Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

There are a myriad of examples of this:

These failures were not a result of malice. They were the result of unintended consequences.

And over next decade and beyond, as this new wave of connectivity moves beyond laptops and smartphones, co-opting our cars, homes, what we wear, and the cities we live in, tech will be demanding more and more trust from us.

This makes the potential harms of emerging tech frightening, to say the least.

For example:

  1. Algorithms punish the poor.

    Governments around the world are increasingly using predictive algorithms to assess millions of vulnerable people as to their eligibility for benefits.

    But machines glitch.

    In India last year, an impoverished man died of starvation, when the computer glitched and his thumbprint went unrecognised. His subsistence rations were stopped.

  2. Surveillance excels totalitarianism.

    Invasive surveillance technology is not being applied simply to criminals or possible terrorists. Naomi Klein says, technology is being built "to identify, track and document any citizen constantly and continuously".

    In Disneyland, if you go on a ride and purchase a photo of yourself afterwards, your name and credit card information are automatically linked to the transaction. This is because Disneyland uses facial recognition - all without your express permission.

  3. Artificial Intelligence promotes inequality.

    Machine Learning is only as good as the data it's given to learn on. This means AI can acquire bias against race and gender. Recent studies have suggested artificial intelligence can develop sexist and racist tendencies.

    For example, Google Translate software converts gender-neutral pronouns from several languages into “he” when talking about a doctor, and “she” when talking about a nurse.

How can we limit such unintended consequences occurring in the future?

The answer, I believe, lies in the field of ethics.

“There is absolutely no inevitability, so long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

Marshal McLuhan, philosopher and futurist

What is ethics?

Ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that can serve as technology's guiding light, ensuring future innovations are a force for good? And I’m not just talking about killer robots here.

If anything is clear from today's unregulated world of technology, it is the importance of considering ethical concerns when developing, distributing, implementing and using all technology.  

Concerns such as:

  1. Just because it’s possible to build something, why build it in the first place?

  2. Will the user be the beneficiary of this technology, as opposed to the other way around?

  3. Have the most vulnerable users been considered in the design?

The Cost Of Progress

Progress always comes at a cost. The invention of paper contributed to deforestation. Industrialisation created pollution and the Internet, while the benefits are too numerous to mention, erodes privacy and lowers attention spans to name a few.

Technology can undoubtedly make the world a better place. But when there is nothing intrinsic to technology requiring it pursue only good ends, oversight is essential.

Ethics can be that oversight.

Applied correctly, it can ensure the digital ecosystem of the future, is one in which all of humanity can thrive.

If anyone is looking to explore the world of ethics further, an enthusiastic nod goes to designer and futurist Cennydd Bowles.

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