Tech ethics are having a moment. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it started – probably sometime between the Cambridge Analytica debacle and Facebook’s 2017 apology tour – but the problems of designing and implementing ethical technology have quickly become some of the most important questions of our time.
Because the questions we face in this space are so new, it’s useful to outline what we’re talking about when we refer to tech ethics and how we implement ethical technology when the field of tech ethics is still in its infancy.
First, what are ethics?
The oldest surviving ethical texts date back to Egypt 5,000 years ago. Since then, ethics has been formalized as an academic discipline and broken down into a range of philosophical and psychological subcategories: virtue ethics, consequentialism, deontology, axiology, and moral psychology, among many, many more.
The primary questions embedded in most branches of ethics (known as normative ethics) center on the ethics of human behavior. They explore concepts of right and wrong, morality, and values in the context of how we choose to act.
Prior to acting, we (hopefully) put some thought into why we’re doing something or choosing a particular course of action. When making ethical decisions, we may find ourselves asking questions such as: What is morally right? What is fair? Who benefits from this action? Who are we obligated to?
While there are many schools of thought in normative ethics, there is no single formula for ethical behavior. Part of the reason for this is the highly subjective nature of morality, as well as social and cultural influences that affect our understanding of ethics.
Okay, then what are tech ethics?
While ethics has been formally studied for thousands of years, its application to real-life situations tend to arise when new fields – and thus questions specific to that field – emerge. The application of ethics to various fields is called applied ethics. Examples include political ethics, military ethics, business ethics, publishing ethics, and bioethics. Technology ethics, sometimes called machine ethics, is one of the most recent branches of applied ethics.
While the term “machine ethics” can be traced back to the 1980s, the topic of technology ethics has only gained significant attention in the last decade. As our technology has advanced, we are faced with an ever-growing list of ethical questions about how our digital tools are developed and used in an ethical way. Such questions touch on everything from privacy and safety, to biases in data sets, to employment and inequality, to the development of AI.
While a number of organizations – predominantly government bodies, nonprofits, and academic institutions – have begun to outline various ethical frameworks for technology, as of yet, there remains no single formalized code of ethics for technological development.
How do we make ethical technology when no formal guidelines exist?
As there is no consensus, either legally or academically, on what constitutes ethical technology, it can be difficult for companies to know exactly how to proceed. In the absence of established guidelines, however, there are several approaches executives can take to ensure their company is acting as ethically as possible until such standards are developed.
1. Review proposed frameworks for ethical technology. Organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ranking Digital Rights (and others) have each proposed frameworks to address various ethical concerns, including privacy, freedom of speech, and technology design. A review of these will go a long way not only towards preparing for future legislation, but may also promote an internal concern for and prioritization of ethical self-regulation.
2. Build a more pluralistic workforce. A more diverse workforce – in regard to gender and ethnicity, and also by hiring employees with a range of backgrounds and experiences – improves a company’s inbuilt capacity for complex problem-solving and ethical decision-making.
3. Recognize that ethics are not static. As evidenced by the history of ethical thought and the constantly evolving nature of human morality, ethics (applied to any field) is progressive, nonlinear, and dynamic. As cultural demands and our understanding of right and wrong evolve, so too must our conception of ethical technology.
4. Hire experts. Ethical technology lies at the intersection of the humanities and computer science. Hiring philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and more interdisciplinary staff increases the likelihood that ethical decisions will be identified efficiently and managed effectively. Ethics experts with knowledge of the field can help assess the current behaviors and unique challenges of any company and help steer them in a more prosocial and ethically-informed direction.
There is no reason to sit back and wait for ethical standards to be developed in order to start taking action. Not only will proactively addressing ethics in the industry help advance a more prosocial, fair future when it comes to technology, but may also help elevate public trust, avoid legislation, identify new opportunities, and strengthen company culture.
Below are some useful links from organizations working on, or who have already proposed, ethical frameworks for technology: