At the Intersection of Technology and Ethics


Unless we radically shift our technology base, we cannot sustain people with the quality of life that we have in the developed world … if they all have this resource footprint. That’s just a matter of simple mathematics.

An IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) Board of Governors Forum in Dublin, Ireland, on 17 May 2017 convened educators, researchers, policy experts, technologists and industry for a discussion around implications of technology ethics, primarily in context of the global climate crisis. Paul Cunningham, president of IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT), moderated this interdisciplinary panel discussion among Prof. John Barry, Centre for Sustainability and Environmental Governance, Queen’s University Belfast; Prof. Barry McMullin, School of Electronic Engineering, Dublin City University; Dr. Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, executive director of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), and Tara McGrath, Design for Change Coordinator for Ireland. A number of attendees joined in the dialogue with comments from the floor.

It was a provocative discussion with many moments each worthy of its own dedicated conversation. The collection of multi-disciplinary thinkers from different cultures voiced a series of challenging questions. Here are some of their thoughts…

If you push too hard on something that’s too huge a sacrifice, it will just seem impossible. Whatever we want to do as a suite of interventions, it needs to feel achievable. You only win fights when you think you can win … how do we turn this into a fight we feel we can win?

Cost is the biggest challenge in trying to go with the program that has been set right now… Where will the money come from to actually do it?
What’s the backstop? If all this doesn’t work, can we do planet engineering? What are the ethics around that?

We engineers have co-created the problem. The question is, as Einstein said, is whether the ones who created the problem can solve it.

The responses raised by the forum were equally thought-provoking and sometimes conflicting…

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is how quickly technology is coming to the rescue.

I don’t think there are technical solutions to this problem. This is about behavior mainly.

Every aspect of this, we can attack using technical solutions. I fully agree technical solutions aren’t everything … but behavioral change is a lot easier if it doesn’t cost so much, if it doesn’t require such a huge sacrifice and if it feels winnable.

Certainly, we do need to galvanize people around a different vision of the good life—where you can’t fly to New York really cheap for a weekend shopping. Now that’s a hard sell because it is seen as infringing on people’s freedom. But this is a sense of freedom that is very shallow… Authentic freedom doesn’t exist only in the form of consumer choice.

On the one hand, you could say that technology is one of things that has put us on a currently unsustainable path… The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s my view and that of a lot of other people that we’re not going to get out of this without further advances in science and technology.

More and more frequently, IEEE is assuming the role as an open platform for exploration of vexing questions surrounding ethics in relation to technology. With technological tools and services permeating deeper into people’s everyday lives, innovation is bringing about changes to the ethical environment by altering relationships and introducing new dilemmas. And so IEEE, as the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity, is called to pursue a deeper understanding of nuanced issues, to advance thinking and to develop practices and protocols to address challenges so that innovation and technology advancements are informed by their social and human impacts.

These are increasingly common themes across a growing number of IEEE activities. The IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems is a perfect example.

In December 2016, the initiative published the first version of Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Wellbeing with Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems, a document that encourages technologists to prioritize ethical considerations in the creation of autonomous and intelligent technologies. Its release prompted more than 220 pages of feedback from contributors around the world. Version 2 of the living document is in development, and, again, feedback from a wide variety of geographic markets, technical disciplines and walks of life will be sought. The document is intended to serve as a key reference for the work of global policy makers, academics and artificial intelligence/autonomous systems technologists.

As Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director for the IEEE SA, said in a 19 July 2017 press release announcing three new IEEE standards projects addressing ethical dimensions of technology development, “IEEE is uniquely positioned to elevate individual, community and societal values as a key priority that distinguishes our work towards ensuring the development of human-­aligned autonomous and intelligent systems.”

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