Ethical tech.

Though I tinge most of my blogs with ethical questions, the last time I brought up this topic specifically on this was back in 2015. I guess I am ready to give it another go. Ethics is a tough topic. If we deal with this purely superficially, ethics would seem natural, like common sense, or the right thing to do. But if that’s the case, why do so many people do the wrong thing? Things get even more complicated if we move into institutionally complex issues like banking, or governing, technology, genetics, health care or national defense, just to name a few.

The last time I wrote about this, I highlighted Michael Sandel Professor of Philosophy and Government at Harvard’s Law School, where he teaches a wildly popular course called “Justice.” Then, I was glad to see that the big questions were still being addressed in in places like Harvard. Some of his questions then, which came from a FastCo article, were:

“Is it right to take from the rich and give to the poor? Is it right to legislate personal safety? Can torture ever be justified? Should we try to live forever? Buy our way to the head of the line? Create perfect children?”

These are undoubtedly important and prescient questions to ask, especially as we are beginning to confront technologies that make things which were formerly inconceivable or plain impossible, not only possible but likely.

So I was pleased to see last month, an op-ed piece in WIRED by Susan Liautaud founder of The Ethics Incubator. Susan is about as closely aligned to my tech concerns as anyone I have read. And she brings solid thinking to the issues.

“Technology is approaching the man-machine and man-animal
boundaries. And with this, society may be leaping into humanity defining innovation without the equivalent of a constitutional convention to decide who should have the authority to decide whether, when, and how these innovations are released into society. What are the ethical ramifications? What checks and balances might be important?”

Her comments are right in line with my research and co-research into Humane Technologies. Liataud continues:

“Increasingly, the people and companies with the technological or scientific ability to create new products or innovations are de facto making policy decisions that affect human safety and society. But these decisions are often based on the creator’s intent for the product, and they don’t always take into account its potential risks and unforeseen uses. What if gene-editing is diverted for terrorist ends? What if human-pig chimeras mate? What if citizens prefer to see birds rather than flying cars when they look out a window? (Apparently, this is a real risk. Uber plans to offer flight-hailing apps by 2020.) What if Echo Look leads to mental health issues for teenagers? Who bears responsibility for the consequences?”

For me, the answer to that last question is all of us. We should not rely on business and industry to make these decisions, nor expect our government to do it. We have to become involved in these issues at the public level.

Michael Sandel believes that the public is hungry for these issues, but we tend to shy away from them. They can be confrontational and divisive, and no one wants to make waves or be politically incorrect. That’s a mistake.

An image from the future. A student design fiction project that examined ubiquitous AR.

So while the last thing I want is a politician or CEO making these decisions, these two constituencies could do the responsible thing and create forums for these discussions so that the public can weigh in on them. To do anything less, borders on arrogance.

Ultimately we will have to demand this level of thought, beginning with ourselves. This responsibility should start with anticipatory methodologies that examine the social, cultural and behavioral ramifications, and unintended consequences of what we create.

But we should not fight this alone. Corporations and governments concerned with appearing sensitive and proactive toward the environment and social justice need to add a new pillar to their edifice as responsible global citizens: humane technology.

 

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