Is a lack of ethics the problem with technology?
I honestly don’t know how to start today’s article. I want to talk about ethics and values. Or lack of them. But I’m torn about it because most people don’t find it relevant enough. It’s not newsworthy. It’s not about the next Facebook.
The mission of The Aleph is to bring insight beyond technology. I believe ethics is an essential component of the future we’re heading into. Having the right set of values will determine our long-term survival, both as a business and as a species.
The other day, my children got a gift from a friend of the family. It was a book about a mole that gets poo all over his head. He gets mad and starts accusing all the animals of pooing on him. He seeks revenge. He finally finds the culprit, the family dog. He then poos on the dog and runs for safety. Sorry for the spoilers.
“The story of the Little Mole is a tale loved by children and their parents all around the world with more than a million copies sold!”
I can’t even begin to describe how I felt about the book. Don’t let go of your anger, look for the culprit and pay them for what they did. An eye for an eye. But hide what you’ve done and run for the safety of anonymity. Those are the ethical values we’re teaching. I’m not sure how anyone would “love” these principles. But it seems there is a market for them.
The same parents that buy such books, then get astonished by my kids. Their tenderness, their willingness to help others and lend a hand to someone in trouble, surprises them. They always wonder why my wife and I are so lucky to have such good kids.
I don’t believe in luck. Not in the sense that most people infuse the word with. I believe in values. I believe in ethics. And it shocks me to see how other parents marvel at such a display of respectfulness. It always makes me wonder what is then, their standard for respecting others. After reading the Harvey Weinstein’s testimonies, I wonder no more.
It seems I’m not the only one. Last week The New York Times published an article titled “Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It.”
“Technology is not neutral,” said Professor Sahami, who formerly worked at Google as a senior research scientist. “The choices that get made in building technology then have social ramifications.”
It touches upon a theme I’ve brought up regularly on interviews and roundtables in technology conferences. How responsible are we for the effects our innovations create?
Deep Learning and Machine Learning techniques are increasing the complexity of technology. It’s harder than ever, to figure out what potential ramifications our innovations might have.
It still surprises me how deterministic most technocrats still are. On infrequent occasions, I hear a startup founder talking about dynamic systems.
The democratization of technology is enabling access to powerful frameworks to people with very narrow views of the world.
“But until recently, ethics did not seem relevant to many students.”
It’s frightening to see the lack of social empathy and disregard for the consequences of their products some have. I would argue, it doesn’t come from a bad place. Most ascribe to the “Don’t be evil” motto. Still, the unwillingness to assume any responsibility is disheartening.
Even within the technology elites, there is this unconscious belief that technology isn’t complex. This is a fallacy. Technology is extremely complex. We’ve gone from a single program in an isolated computer, to a vast global network of multi-parallel computing units. The exponential growth of the system is unrivaled by anything previously built.
This proliferation has turned a determinist automata into a massive dynamic system. We can no longer apply deterministic logic to solve the problems. We need to take a much more abstract and systemic view of things. The system doesn’t end with your homepage. The boundaries of the system extend way beyond your company’s servers and into our social fabric. Ignoring this fact is one of the reasons for our current social upheaval.
But if understanding the shift of the system’s boundaries is already hard, trying to predict the behavior of the whole, is unrealistic. Still, we insist on our knowledge of what our software will do. We strive for scientific precision in a sea of uncertainty. The truth is, despite our best intentions, we can’t predict most of the ramifications derived from our products. Not just that. While an error of judgment can be fixed in our software, the consequences of our lack of understanding will have long-lasting implications in society.
“You can patch the software, but you can’t patch a person if you, you know, damage someone’s reputation.”
And here is where the ethics and values come into play. When dealing with systems, there is no deterministic answer. We play with a scale of greys, not black and white. In such ambiguous situations, it’s the founder’s ethics that shine. It’s the employee’s values that come forward.
The lack of ethics, the twisted values we impose on our children, have their reflection on the decisions being made by the next generation founders.
This all comes back to the mole and the poo. If we teach our kids that revenge is right; that accusing people is the norm; that you should pay it back; that you should run from your acts; then those are the values that founders will dig when they face unpredictability.
And what does any of this have to do with businesses? It has everything to do with it. I’ve covered several incidents where the lack of morals was the reason why technology companies were getting in trouble. Uber’s lack of ethics, Facebook and Twitter’s content quality shortfalls, YouTube’s absence of moral compass.
As I write these words, I feel I’m falling prey to age. That my words just reflect the maturity of a concerned dad. That generation after generation has said the same. The only argument I can add is that never before in history, a single individual has had the amount of influence some technology founders have now. And while the risk of the absence of an ethical framework has always existed, it has never been so relevant as today.
The fact that Harvard, MIT, UT, Cornell, and Stanford are deploying Ethics and regulations courses should be a warning sign. Still, I find it outrageous that only ivy league students get exposed to ethics around Computer Science. This isn’t a problem only limited to the privileged classes. And it’s also not a problem reserved for Computer Science graduates either. System thinking and ethics frameworks should be taught in school and at home. By every person in society. We are all responsible.
It’s easy to fall prey to simplistic thinking and argue that we should apply technology to better people’s lives. I reckon most innovators have their fellow citizen’s welfare at heart. The truth, though, is that technology’s complexity far exceeds our capacity to understand the ramifications of it entirely. This intricacy also has its reflection on regulations. Trying to regulate our shifting landscape with the uninformed opinion of some politicians, doesn’t cut it anymore.
We are all responsible.
“The deed done, a happy and satisfied Little Mole disappeared back into his mole hole.”
The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit.