Ethics in technology - a public expectation

by Dr Kevin Macnish - Digital Ethics Consulting Manager
| minutes read

It may not be obvious, but ethics is a significant factor in technology. Can technology be unethical? The short answer is yes: think of facial recognition and technology’s weakness in identifying people of colour. The result? The rejection of such tech by US government, as well as technology giants such as IBM and Microsoft.

Yet while there are clearly very important ethical considerations when developing and implementing new tech, they don’t need to be a blocker to innovation.

Tech for good

In the UK there’s a clear push to increase the use of technology, to achieve more and to achieve it more efficiently: from biometrics at British borders to the gathering of land use data, to the sharing of health data during the pandemic. In themselves these are not bad things - technology can be used for good, to make life better, when designed and applied correctly.

For example, biometric corridors at borders can allow for the smoother flow of traffic, while reducing contact points between people where infection might occur. With the right technology, land use can be made more efficient and farmers can be helped to use their land more effectively, and the sharing of data can help limit the spread of fatal infections.

Trust and ethics

Used poorly though, and without the careful consideration of ethics, technology can be discriminatory, exploitative and violate privacy. When such problems emerge in the press, as they invariably do, they are met with understandable anger and a loss of trust in those who have designed and used the technology. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust is at an all-time low for both the technology and public sectors, and with incidents such as Cambridge Analytica fresh in our minds, this is not surprising.

Understanding public expectation

It's crucial, therefore, that we take the time to seek and understand public expectations and values when it comes to technology. What is the public mood, for instance, behind digital identities or the sharing of health data for public benefit? In most cases we can make assumptions, but without putting the work into finding out, we will never know for sure. So it’s important for business and government to survey and monitor public attitudes towards technology, particularly for new and emerging tech. Attitudes are rarely static and exposés in the press can swing public opinion against technologies, while trials of new tech which seek public input on their ethical experience can move opinion in the other direction. We must be aware of, and sensitive to, such movements as well as the core expectations that underlie them.

Protecting public values

Once those core expectations and values have been understood, and are being monitored, we must then create robust technology with appropriate guardrails that protect those values. If we fail to do so, then trust in the application of technology will be fragile at best.

By weaving digital ethics throughout any new technology development, businesses and governments can help protect themselves against the risk of harming people, inviting reputational damage or prosecution, caused by unethical approaches. They will also be able to realise the many benefits that innovation and digitalisation can bring when used ethically.

An ethical mindset

So yes, technology can and should be ethical. Making it such is up to those who commission that technology and to those who design and implement it. Understanding public and consumer values and expectations is a solid first step in any design process. Incorporating an ethical approach and mindset throughout the development, implementation and maintenance of any new technology is critical to ensure its success. Only then can we progress towards the real public benefit that technology offers.

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