Debating Ethics in the Digital Disruption

We are in the midst of perhaps the largest societal disruption in history. Digitalisation is changing the way we work, consume, communicate, think, live. And this in an incredibly short timeframe. The industrial revolution in the 18th Century took about 80 years. It resulted in mass urbanisation and mass technological, economic, societal, social, environmental, geostrategic and political change.

Digitalisation goes beyond this in many ways. Its change is not only faster, it accelerates life itself. It touches upon every sector and every facet of our lives. It’s revolutionising production, information, mobility, and so on. Autonomous cars, robots, artificial intelligence, automation, social media, are all transformative. They will define us; they will define society. This is the dream of the Silicon Valley pioneers. Harnessing the transformative powers of digitalisation to change society for the better.

This blue-eyed idealism, however, has some dark downsides. We’re aware of the information cocoon, the echo chambers, that our social media builds, which leads to greater social polarisation and extremism. We know that digitalisation impacts attention, memory, empathy and attitude. We know that it will impact the job market. But, we don’t know how it will do so, at what speed and depth, and what its meta-impact will be on our society at large.

Different doomsday scenarios are emerging. In a world of robots and artificial intelligence (AI), Israeli Historian Yuval Noah Harari is already talking of an upcoming “useless class”. A class of humans that will be living in a post-work world with no economic purpose. Principal researcher at Microsoft Research, Kate Crawford, has warned that in a world of rising nationalism AI could be a “fascists dream”, allowing authoritarian regimes an unprecedented amount of command and control. And Sir Mark Walport, UK chief scientific advisor, too has cautioned against the uncontrolled use of AI in areas such as medicine and the law, because AI can’t be neutral. AI is based on humans and human data. That means AI can take on the very inherent biases that we have, magnify them, and then act on them.

All kinds of ethical questions are emerging in this digital disruption. Who will be liable in a crash by an autonomous car or in a surgery gone wrong by a robot? What should be the algorithms used in autonomous cars – drive over and kill the pedestrian if it saves your life in a traffic situation, or crash and kill yourself, saving the pedestrian? What degree of regulation does social media require to combat fake news and hate speech, without impacting freedom of speech? Should robots be banned from certain tasks? Should there be regulation stating that final decisions must still be made by a human rather than by artificial intelligence? Akin to the military rule that a “kill decision” always has to be made by a human. How do we distribute wealth created by robots? And what happens to the workers displaced by robots?

The problem is, as Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society, that “the growing intelligence of mankind seems not to be growing rapidly enough to achieve mastery over the social problems, which the advances of technology create”. It is high time for a public debate on ethics and digital technology. Leading AI companies are already moving ahead. Facebook, Amazon, Google DeepMind, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft, this unholy alliance of competitors, has already joined hands in a Partnership on AI designed to initiate more public discussion on artificial intelligence. Why would that be? Because it’s about their business. Loss of public trust in these new technologies could significantly affect their business, burning the billions of dollars in research budgets put into AI.

The public discussion should not be for business to shape. Public authorities have leadership responsibility to put this on the political agenda, start this discussion and engage citizens in it. Some progress is taking place. The UK has established a Data Ethics Group at the Alan Turing Institute and the European Commission can also particularly be praised. Together with media partners from 19 EU countries (such as El Pais, The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Gazeta Wyborcza, etc.) it has launched a massive set of internet consultations, engaging citizens in surveys on the impact of the digital world on jobs, privacy, health, democracy, security, and so on.

We need an ethical discussion on digital technologies to ensure that the safeguards we have in place for the analogue world are also in the digital world. Digitalisation is shaping and defining us. But we need to be the ones that shape and define it. So that it may give us its greatest advantage and the least disadvantage.