Ethics and Emerging Technologies: Practitioners’ Perspectives

AUTHOR
Mary Prior and Simon Rogerson

ABSTRACT

Background

In his famous 1985 paper James Moor proposed that the novelty of Computer Technology led to the existence of ‘policy vacuums’:

‘Computers provide us with new capabilities and these in turn give us new choices for action. Often, either no policies for conduct in these situations exist or existing policies seem inadequate.’ (Moor, 1985, p. 266)

To address this problem, a research project currently being undertaken within the European Commission 7th Framework Programme is focussed on identifying emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the ethical issues to which they may give rise, in order to recommend governance structures and policies aimed at addressing them before or as they arise (ETICA).

To complement the academic/research focus of ETICA, a project is being undertaken with ICT practitioners to identify their perceptions of emerging technologies, the ethical issues to which they may give rise and how they may be addressed. This paper will report the outcomes of this project, including a comparison between the perceptions of academics/researchers and of practitioners.

Research methods

The work is being undertaken on behalf of a professional body, with the co-operation of its more experienced members. Two research methods are being employed; firstly, a survey (questionnaire) (Bryman, 2008) and secondly, focus groups (Beardsworth & Bryman, 2006).

The ETICA project used a survey in its initial stages, aimed at researchers and helping to identify:

  • the fields within which current ICT research is being conducted;
  • application areas, expected use and the benefits of these technologies;
  • ethical, social and legal issues that were foreseen, how they were identified, how they had been addressed and how effective were any measures taken to address them;
  • the technologies likely to be used in the future, the ethical issues to which they might give rise and how they might best be addressed.

This survey was adapted for use with ICT practitioners. At the time of writing, responses have been received and analysed to identify fruitful areas for more in-depth discussion within the focus groups. The latter will comprise senior, experienced practitioners and will take place during the Spring of 2011.

Survey results

Respondents are working on a wide range of technologies, in a variety of industries. The ETICA project had identified 11 fields (e.g. affective/emotional computing; ambient intelligence; artificial intelligence; bioelectronics). Nearly half of respondents work in the field of ‘Cloud Computing’ with the next highest proportion being ‘Future Internet’. Altogether 9 of the 11 identified fields are represented.

Only half of respondents say that ‘possible ethical, social or legal problems’ were foreseen arising from the projects they were working on. Given the fields involved, and the expected benefits (many of which involved greater efficiency/cost savings and improved data management) this is an interesting finding that requires further investigation. The majority (nearly 80%) did not consider gender.

Of the possible ethical, social or legal problems identified, many were related to data protection, privacy and security. However others such as ‘reduced staff requirements’ and ‘intrusion into personal matters’ were also mentioned. Among the measures taken to address the issues, many were ‘technical’, although ‘including a work package on legal, ethical and social issues’, ‘reconsideration of the objective of the project’ and ‘setting up an ethics committee/review board’ were among steps taken, too. In one case, ‘cancellation of a part (or more) of the project’ was cited.

Among the future technologies identified, Cloud Computing figured prominently; hardly surprising given that many respondents were working in this field. Others mentioned were mobile technologies, with portable devices becoming more prevalent; internet-based applications and the integration of systems, for example more integrated household management and control. Asked whether they could identify ethical issues to which these are likely to give rise, respondents most frequently cited the security and privacy of data. In addition they mentioned:

  • the boundary between security/counter terrorism and civil liberties;
  • computer hackers will increase by use of the net;
  • retention of data on a server not owned by your organisation;
  • there is a tendency for organisations to assume there are no boundaries to what they can do; there is then an erosion of what is currently acceptable; this always seems to be for the benefit of the organisation and not of the individual;
  • the issues of replacing humans with machines;
  • how virtual reality is used to create situations in relation to gender, religion etc;
  • conflict of use when the same device is used for corporate as well as personal (i.e. private) computing.

Respondents were asked if they could suggest how any ethical issues arising from emerging ICTs should be addressed. A few replied simply replied, ‘no’. Others cited ‘personal responsibility’, the role of education and a technical approach via ‘tightly secured cloud computing’. Regulation was mentioned, as was the setting up of a committee similar to that used to consider ethical issues related to embryology in the UK. The development process was also mentioned, to include ‘multi-stakeholder dialogues’, formal risk assessments and ethics as an integral part. General public forums and focus groups were suggested by one respondent.

Further work

Half of the survey respondents have agreed to be contacted for more in-depth discussion of the issues raised. In particular, the researchers wish, firstly, to pursue the means by which ethical, social or legal issues have been identified and addressed in projects the study participants have worked on. Secondly, to explore the range of future technologies that have been identified and the potential ethical, social or legal issues to which they may give rise. Finally, to discuss the means by which participants suggest these issues should be addressed.

Having summarised the findings from this study with experienced industry practitioners, the paper will compare them with the findings from the more academic/research-oriented participants in the ETICA project. Concluding observations will include suggestions/recommendations for further work in this area.

REFERENCES

Beardsworth, Alan & Bryman, Alan (2006), Focus Group Research. Open University Press.

Bryman, A. 2008. Social Research Methods. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

ETICA Project home page: http://www.etica-project.eu/

Moor, James (1985), What is Computer Ethics? Metaphilosophy, vol. 16 no. 4, 266-75.

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