A Very Short History of Computer Ethics

By Terrell Ward Bynum

[This article was published in the Summer 2000 issue of the American Philosophical Association’s Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing]

The Foundation of Computer Ethics

Computer ethics as a field of study was founded by MIT professor Norbert Wiener during World War Two (early 1940s) while helping to develop an antiaircraft cannon capable of shooting down fast warplanes. One part of the cannon had to “perceive” and track an airplane, then calculate its likely trajectory and “talk” to another part of the cannon to fire the shells. The engineering challenge of this project caused Wiener and some colleagues to create a new branch of science, which Wiener called “cybernetics” – the science of information feedback systems. The concepts of cybernetics, when combined with the digital computers being created at that time, led Wiener to draw some remarkably insightful ethical conclusions. He perceptively foresaw revolutionary social and ethical consequences. In 1948, for example, in his book Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine, he said the following: Continue reading