2 months, 11 days ago

The Game of Wits between Technologists and Ethics Professors

Link: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/DemandingChange/~3/cT9_cB7gqGs/the-game-of-wits-between-technologists.html

What does #TechnologyEthics look like from the viewpoint of your average ethics professor? 

Not surprisingly, many ethics professors believe strongly in the value of ethics education, and advocate ethics awareness training for business managers and engineers. Provided by people like themselves, obviously.

There is a common pattern among technologists and would-be enterpreneurs to first come up with a "solution", find areas where the solution might apply, and then produce self-interested arguments to explain why the solution matches the problem. Obviously there is a danger of confirmation bias here. Proposing ethics education as a solution for an ill-defined problem space looks suspiciously like the same pattern. Ethicists should understand why it is important to explain what this education achieves, and how exactly it solves the problem.

Please note that I am not arguing against the value of ethics education and training as such, merely complaining that some of the programmes seem to involve little more than meandering through a randomly chosen reading list. @ruchowdh recently posted a particularly egregious example – see below.

Ethics professors may also believe that people with strong ethical awareness, such as themselves, can play a useful role in technology governance – for example, participating in advisory councils.

Some technology companies may choose to humour these academics, engaging them as a PR exercise (ethics washing) and generously funding their research. Fortunately, many of them lack deep understanding of business organizations and of technology, so there is little risk of them causing any serious challenge or embarrasment to these companies.

Professors are always attracted to the kind of work that lends itself to peer-reviewed articles in leading Journals. So it is fairly easy to keep their attention focused on theoretically fascinating questions with little or no practical relevance, such as the Trolley Problem.

Alternatively, they can be engaged to try and "fix" problems with real practical relevance, such as algorithmic bias. @juliapowles calls this a "captivating diversion", distracting academics from the more fundamental question, whether the algorithm should be built at all.

It might be useful for these ethics professors to have deeper knowledge of technology and business, in their social and historical context, enabling them to ask more searching and more relevant questions. (Although some ethics experts have computer science degrees or similar, computer science generally teaches people about specific technologies, not about Technology.) 

But if only a minority of ethics professors possess sufficient knowledge and experience, these will be overlooked for the plum advisory jobs. I therefore advocate compulsory technology awareness training for ethics professors, especially "prominent" ones. Provided by people like myself, obviously.


Stephanie Burns, Solution Looking For A Problem (Forbes, 28 May 2019)

Casey Fiesler, Tech Ethics Curricula: A Collection of Syllabi (5 July 2018), What Our Tech Ethics Crisis Says About the State of Computer Science Education (5 December 2018)

Mark Graban, Cases of Technology “Solutions” Looking for a Problem? (26 January 2011)

Julia Powles, The Seductive Diversion of ‘Solving’ Bias in Artificial Intelligence (7 December 2018)

Oscar Williams, How Big Tech funds the debate on AI ethics (New Statesman, 6 June 2019)

Related posts:

Leadership and Governance (May 2019), Selected Reading List – Science and Technology Studies (June 2019), With Strings Attached (June 2019)

Updated 21 June 2019

Read more »