Ethics in technology isn’t easy

I gave a talk today about our research to a class of grad students. From the Q&A, I learned that quite a few of them are concerned with how technology can be used ethically, and ways to prevent it from being used unethically.

It is wonderful that they are interested in this, yet I found the tone of some of the questions to be problematic. The question is inherently difficult, and I sensed that some of the students were frustrated that I could not supply an easy answer.

Yes, we should do all we can to create and use new technologies in an ethical way. But no, alas, there is no silver bullet.

The problem is that the biology of human brains has not evolved significantly in the last 200,000 years. By nature, we are still the same creatures we were in the Paleolithic age.

Ideas of morality and ethics can be culturally superimposed, but they don’t actually change inherent human nature. People remain, and will continue to remain, highly capable of dishonesty, theft, betrayal, and tribalist xenophobia.

We are also tool builders by nature. We have always built tools, and we will continue to build new ones, for as long as our species exists. Which means that these same difficult questions will always continue to recur.

I wish I could tell the students that there is an easy answer to how to create and manage new technologies in a way that is sure to be ethical. Yet I cannot.

I can tell them to continue to fight the good fight, and perhaps win some important battles along the way. But I cannot in good conscience tell them that we can ever hope to win the war.

The fault, dear reader, is not in our tools but in ourselves.

2 Responses to “Ethics in technology isn’t easy”

  1. Albert Hwang says:

    Thanks for sharing this and glad to hear the kids are thinking bout this issue these days. Guess it must be a sign of the times.

    I spent 2 yrs at Facebook / Oculus trying to advocate for more ethical approaches, but felt like it just wasn’t in line with the philosophical frameworks that they do work in.

    After spending too much time getting angry about it (and eventually leaving FB primarily for this reason), I think I have a general answer that I’m happy with.

    I imagine that at the same time you’re in a room trying to help technologists with questions about ethics, there’s an analogous room somewhere else in the world full of ethicists trying to get help with technology. They are asking they’re teacher: “hey, how do I get my portfolio online?”

    I think the right answer to them would be: don’t try to use ethics to try to solve that problem — it would be: go hire a technologist / learn how to program.

    In the same light, designers and engineers shouldn’t try to design / engineer their way out of their ethical quandaries, either. Instead, they should hire ethicists. Ethicists know how to take complicated stews of feelings / concerns / power dynamics / etc and turn them into simpler frameworks or codes of conduct that you can use to make decisions against with some confidence.

    The main allergic reaction to this that technologists have is due to the fact that technologists (myself included) love taking super complicated situations and boiling them down. Ethical issues are deceptively similar to tech issues in that way, which make it very easy for us to forget and think we can solve it. I think we can do our best (and must) but we should also ask for help from experts when we can.

  2. admin says:

    Very good point!

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