An Oath of Ethics for Technology

With the web abuzz over the recent grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Senate, technologists alike are starting to rethink their ethos. John M discusses how ethics have evolved in the IT industry and what improvements are now imperative to moving forward...

“First, do no harm...”

These words are the founding principles of medical ethics. It is a concise and unambiguous statement that is known the world over, and it forms part of the oath that medical professionals take.

It is obvious why members of this industry take an oath; it creates trust which in turn creates an environment for them to work effectively.

Currently, nothing like this exists for those in IT. Perhaps this is because of the wide range of disciplines of our industry, or perhaps it is because IT is not a means unto itself; it is the mechanism on how data is processed, how processes are automated, and so much more.

Here come the computers...

The first general purpose computer was built in 1946, and the changes that computers have made to our lives has been nothing short of revolutionary. It’s strange to think that 72 years on, ethics is still a grey area in the world of technology.

Very few companies can exemplify the changes of the digital revolution as much as Facebook - a web application that was launched 14 years ago. With over 2 billion monthly active users, it was a shock to see a brand like Facebook secretly psychologically experimenting on it’s user database. In 2012, Facebook manipulated news feeds of some of their users to gain information on engagement. This may have been done with the knowledge of the affected users and was consistent to Facebook’s data use policy, however still seems unethical in practice. More recently, their CEO was questioned by the U.S. Congress on Facebook's current data and ad policies. Many rising questions from this are still unanswered to date.

If the companies are not following a strong ethical code, what can we expect of the software they write?

Programs are becoming faster and “smarter”, but they are not infallible; Microsoft’s chatbot Tay had to be turned off after 16 hours as it was posting inflammatory and offensive tweets. Tay “learned” this behaviour after being exposed to it on Twitter from other users. Tay simply had no understanding of what inappropriate behaviour is; it knew nothing of ethics and morals, and simply learned from what it was exposed to. While this may reflect poorly on those who were interacting with Tay, it demonstrated that without strong ethos, it was easy for the software to go from sending messages that were benign to sending offensive messages.

One of the more interesting technological developments in the past few years is AlphaGo - a self learning AI that has mastered the world’s most difficult games to the highest level. Learning games may seem harmless in itself, but it would be foolish to think that this is the only thing that this self learning algorithm will be used for. What will a logical computer learn, and how will it apply it in the real world? A self learning computer will need some sort of foundational ethos; even something as basic and fundamental as The Three Laws of Robotics.

With the influence that these tech companies have, why is there not a set of universal ethics or ubiquitous oath, slogan or mantra for software developers, data processors and system administrators? Even Google’s infamous “don’t be evil” company slogan has its problems, so much so that Google's parent company has the motto “Do the right thing”.

We need something better.

This brings us back to the idea that IT is a mean to an end. Can there ever be an industry wide set of ethics since this is not a single homogeneous industry?

Perhaps the most effective way for ethics to be involved in every aspect of IT is for a guiding set of ethics to be adopted in bottom to top approach.

Github user MKDale has proposed a “Tech Oath”, which is a very good start:

The Technologist’s Oath:

"I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this pledge:

I will remember that users, individually or collectively, are not numbers or a goal, they are people and must be respected. I will respect the hard-won professional and creative gains of those technologists that came before me, and I will gladly share my knowledge with future generations.

I will apply my abilities for the benefit and value of the end user, and I will advocate when the goal of a product comes into conflict with this.

I will remember that there is art to technology as well as science, and that empathy, craft, and remaining mindful about the consequences of my decisions outweigh the importance of my technical knowledge, the impulse for financial benefit, or allure of status.

I will not be ashamed to say "I don’t know," nor will I fail to call upon my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for deeper critique or diversity of thought.

I will respect the need of my users to maintain healthy relationships with technology. For every problem I attempt to solve, I will strive to directly connect with the audience of the solution I create.

I must tread with care in matters of life balance and manipulation, ceasing involvement when ethical dilemma or moral recklessness arise.

I will strive to positively influence the lives of those impacted by the technology I build, but I acknowledge that it may also be within my power to negatively impact a life to serious consequence; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own limitations.

I will remember that I do not build merely platforms, applications, or websites but that my work affects human beings in the end, whose capacity or ability to use my creation may affect their family, economic stability, or mental well being. My responsibility should include any directly related outcomes, if I believe I have crafted a truly ethical product.

I will prevent exploitation of users whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to extrication.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the disabled or moderately impaired.

Above all, I understand that I am the gatekeeper; placing greater concern in the consequences of the technology I build over that of obeying authority. If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and my craft, respected while I live and remembered with esteem thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the highest standards of my calling and may I long experience the joy of helping those who explicitly or implicitly seek my help through the experiences and products I help put into the world."

What Now?

Computers are an integral part of life today; technology will become even more integrated in the future and problems that we didn't know existed will be solved by new technology.

The impact that this has on lives must be a positive one, not only to individuals but to society at large. It is this vision that the technologist's oath addresses, with the responsibility on the individual.

The technologist’s oath is not just about the end result, it is about process. If the process is principled then the end result will be too.