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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Ethics Alone Can’t Fix Big Tech

Daniel Susser
Originally posted April 17, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

At a deeper level, these issues highlight problems with the way we’ve been thinking about how to create technology for good. Desperate for anything to rein in otherwise indiscriminate technological development, we have ignored the different roles our theoretical and practical tools are designed to play. With no coherent strategy for coordinating them, none succeed.

Consider ethics. In discussions about emerging technologies, there is a tendency to treat ethics as though it offers the tools to answer all values questions. I suspect this is largely ethicists’ own fault: Historically, philosophy (the larger discipline of which ethics is a part) has mostly neglected technology as an object of investigation, leaving that work for others to do. (Which is not to say there aren’t brilliant philosophers working on these issues; there are. But they are a minority.) The result, as researchers from Delft University of Technology and Leiden University in the Netherlands have shown, is that the vast majority of scholarly work addressing issues related to technology ethics is being conducted by academics trained and working in other fields.

This makes it easy to forget that ethics is a specific area of inquiry with a specific purview. And like every other discipline, it offers tools designed to address specific problems. To create a world in which A.I. helps people flourish (rather than just generate profit), we need to understand what flourishing requires, how A.I. can help and hinder it, and what responsibilities individuals and institutions have for creating technologies that improve our lives. These are the kinds of questions ethics is designed to address, and critically important work in A.I. ethics has begun to shed light on them.

At the same time, we also need to understand why attempts at building “good technologies” have failed in the past, what incentives drive individuals and organizations not to build them even when they know they should, and what kinds of collective action can change those dynamics. To answer these questions, we need more than ethics. We need history, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, law, and the lessons of political activism. In other words, to tackle the vast and complex problems emerging technologies are creating, we need to integrate research and teaching around technology with all of the humanities and social sciences.

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