Everyone needs a code of ethics.
From big businesses, to the small individual. All of us are compelled by a moral compass.
It doesn’t matter if it’s explicitly written down or just in your head. What matters is that you understand what is ‘right’.
Doing the right thing however isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be. At least most of the time.
Ethical decision making can be extremely challenging. Despite what many people may think, most companies and people don’t go out of their way to spite or harm others. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it’s just less clear-cut than many make it out to be.
We all have to walk a morally grey line most of the time. Fortunately, for most everyday people, if we make a mistake it doesn’t end in catastrophe.
For some people though, it could.
We’ve all seen the ethical blunders over the years. From the likes of Enron to the banks that were ‘too big to fail’. Heck, we’ve even seen our own banking industry collapse under its shaky ethical foundations in recent months.
The point is, these ethical dilemmas keep happening. And the really bad cases usually stem from big corporations.
It’s an unfortunate reality. However, we can and do punish these wrongdoers. But, the problem is this approach is reactionary.
We can only respond once an ethical breach has been made. Sure, we may see justice served, but sometimes that may be too late.
There is a storm brewing in the tech sector. An ethical predicament that could be far bigger than anything we’ve seen in the past. And most people don’t even know it’s coming…
Walking off the job
Google, Amazon and Microsoft have a problem. I’d wager they aren’t alone with this, but they’re the three main companies that we know are grappling with it.
This problem, as research fellow Dan Feldman calls it, is an ‘engineering insurgency’. A crisis of talent if you will, or rather lack thereof.
Simply put, the engineers are walking away from their jobs. It’s not about how much they’re getting paid or working conditions either, it’s a conflict of ethics. As The National Interest reports:
‘Google employees are upset that the company’s video interpretation technology could be used to optimize drone strikes. Amazon workers are insisting they don’t want law enforcement to have access to the company’s face recognition technology. Microsoft staff are threatening to quit if plans to make software for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) go forward.’
‘The dissent is part of a growing anxiety about AI: from concerns raised by academics and NGO’s about “killer robots”…to misgivings about inequity and racial profiling in the deployment of AI.’
The people behind the company, the ones who make the technology, are conflicted. They are making a stand for their personal ethical beliefs.
It’s a troubling predicament. One that doesn’t have a clear cut right or wrong in my mind.
Clearly these individuals are worried about the future we are rapidly heading towards. A world that could be filled with automated killers. Where your everyday life is controlled by totalitarian algorithms. A world that no longer has any semblance of privacy.
We need to prepare for this ‘future’. I’m not sure walking away from it, like these engineers did, is the best option. But who am I to judge, I don’t have all the details.
What I can say is that this outburst has sent a message. A message to the companies, a message to their workers and a message to the public.
Like it or not, we’ve got an ethical problem on our hands. All of us.
A changing world
When it comes to AI and tech in general, you need to stay level-headed. You underestimate its impact at your own risk.
For better or worse, technology can truly be world-changing.
AI is poised to be a different beast entirely though. It will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
No one truly knows what it will do for our world. All we really know is that it’s going to happen in a big way. Again, as The National Interest notes:
‘Our engagement with AI will transform us. Technology always does, even while we are busy using it to reinvent our world. The introduction of the machine gun by Richard Gatling during America’s Civil War, and its massive role in World War I, obliterated our ideas of military gallantry and chivalry and emblazoned in our minds Wilfred Owen’s imagery of young men who “die as Cattle.”’
Each of us, whether it be as an individual or a corporation or a government, has a choice to make. We stand before one of the biggest ethical challenges man may ever face.
Fortunately, we also have the ability to get it right.
These engineers who walked away have taken a stand. A sign that there is hope for a better outcome.
It may sound overly dramatic, but is it not better to lose a job rather than a life? The answer should be obvious.
Every time we get it wrong the stakes will get higher and higher. Time is running out on our ethical clock.
Best you be prepared, because tougher questions are coming. And we can’t afford to be wrong.
Editor, Tech Insider