Putting Digital Ethics on the Map

Are we putting technology infrastructure ahead of people and society? Hannah Rudman explores this challenging conversation.

As Digital Transformation professionals, we have worked hard at the digital transformation of many industries and sectors. The early years of the digital revolution just past proves that people have embraced technology. We’ve driven digitisation, automation, augmentation, disinter-mediation and mobilisation – changes that mean everything is connected, what was dumb is now intelligent, and performance is reaching perfection. IT professionals have catalysed one of the most transformational times in human history by introducing changes which amplify each other: quantum computing and the internet of things intensifies artificial intelligence and big data which strengthens robotics. Artificial intelligence software and robots can do some of our work: intelligent IT is brilliant at simulating. But it is people that are excellent at being, and we in the Digital Transformation sector must now focus on what can not be automated, as it will become increasingly valuable. Creativity, imagination and story telling. Foresight, wisdom and intuition. Emotion, compassion and empathy. All are aspects of our humanity that differentiate us from machines, as is ethics a human only trait.

Technology itself currently has little ethics or empathy

Technology itself currently has little ethics or empathy – people become numbers, algorithms become the rules, and reality becomes what the data says (and what big data platforms fail to monitor or identify as fake). Technology, already embedded in most hours of our outer lives through personal digital devices and wearables, is starting to become a part of our inner lives through nano sensors and robots implanted in our bodies. Our next big challenge is fathoming how humanity will become an ecosystem with IT: we need to consider what might be, imagine the dystopias and utopias and the impacts on our inner lives and society. Here, turning to ethics helps. The Alan Turing Institute  is engaging with Data Ethics as the national institute for data science, founded by five universities – Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, UCL and Warwick – and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The Institute says: “Data science will change the world. We are pioneers; training the next generation of data science leaders, shaping the public conversation, and pushing the boundaries of this new science for the public good”. The Institute recognises that the tech-driven innovation of data science doesn’t just improve the economy, it also impacts society, the environment and humanity, and so it is explicitly developing Data Ethics. Which begins to deal with the ethical issues around data. It doesn’t deal with the wider ethical issues of being a human in a digital age.

humans are slow to adapt to change but that is no excuse for leaving the most human elements out of the tech equation

Working in Digital Transformation, I’m part of the tech-set ushering in that digital age and this current nascent chapter when humans become more of an ecosystem with IT. But is the future of humanity in a digital age something I’ve been concentrating on? To be honest, it hasn’t been until recently. I’ve become more anxious about it as I’ve noticed that we do not see investment in the human and social infrastructure of tech on the same scale as is invested in the technological infrastructure. That affronts me as a human being, and it has meant I feel I should be having more open conversations around digital ethics. Allow me to rehearse a digital ethics conversation with myself in your company right now:

“Over the past fifty years, IT and digital developments helped economies get richer as new technology and telecommunications companies emerged. IT has fuelled continuous economic growth through enabling globalisation (with the only blip in the continuous growth of the last 55 years being 2007 ). This growth has helped us all earn and acquire more. But economic growth is not synonymous with rising prosperity. The notion of doing well and being happy (a.k.a. prosperity) transcends material concerns and has social and psychological dimensions. Its about our sense of trust and belonging in our community and with our peers; our ability to engage in the life of society and to personally give and receive love; and to be able to contribute useful, good work which offers respect, fulfilment, meaning and purpose in life. As a human being, do I want rising prosperity as well as the economic growth IT drives? I do. As a Digital Transformation professional, that means as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, I need to learn about those who are threatened by it. I have to, for example, get the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) into what is currently human work activity right. If I get it wrong, I could make work meaningless, unfulfilling and purposeless for people. This could result in the world of work becoming a social failure, a place of great human disaffection at huge economic cost. If I did that as a Digital Transformation professional, I’d be negligible to myself as a human being, and all other humans. Not a good scenario. So in terms of AI, I need to treat machine and human intelligence as complementary, with each bringing its own strengths to the table. I need to think about how AI can augment human thinking. Yes, humans are slow to adapt to change but that is no excuse for leaving the most human elements out of the tech equation”. [Conversation over]. There – that actually wasn’t too difficult.

As Digital Transformation professionals, I believe part of our responsibility is to engage with and lead on strategies that engage with wider issues around the role of technology in society. As propagators and champions of IT, we are the ones who must also be responsible for the ethical, social and environmental impact of Digital Transformation. Humans transcend IT and so must lead it with human values, conscience and intuition. We need to shape and guide the future of the digital, and stop making it up as we go along. Lets put digital ethical discussions as important way-markers on the Digital Transformation map.

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