Ethics and technology

Famously, Google’s unofficial motto was ‘Don’t Be Evil’ (sometimes misdescribed as ‘Do no evil’) but any such corporate claim will inevitably lead to tensions since corporations, especially those that span the globe with a professed interest in having an impact on a wide range of end uses, will need to make difficult decisions about where to operate in terms of countries, sectors and technologies. Some of these decisions may then end up antagonising those who joined the firm perhaps naively believing in the corporate ethics that underpinned that motto (or similar statements of corporate values).  Unsurprisingly, last year Google dropped ‘don’t be evil’ in its code of conduct. More recently, Bloomberg describes the employee pushback over relations between Google and the US military.

You might not be the next Jack Poulson, Google’s most famous whistleblower (who quit over plans to develop ‘censorship AI’ for use in the Chinese search market) or the White House Whistleblower, but it is hardly unimaginable that you might come across a firm that might turn out to be the next Theranos or OneCoin (or other cryptocurrency ponzi schemes) or a cybersecurity firm like Tiversa. Or you might need to consider whether to work at a large mining firm such as BHP or even more directly, you might need to decide whether to go through a picket line at Cambridge to even consider working for a firm such as BP.

  1. Assuming something is legally sanctioned, how and to what extent did you/will you consider the ethics of your next employer?
  2. If you are thinking about how to invest, do you only consider ESG funds or actively seek out ‘problem’ firms to try to encourage change or do you simply focus on investing that maximise your returns? Can big investors save the planet?
  3. Are there solutions to encourage greater attention to ethics? Poulson has set up a group called TechInquiry to promote ethics amongst coders. How successful do you think such an organisation can be? Relatedly, can you separate ethical solutions from their real-world applications? This inevitably leads to debates such as Can AI built to ‘benefit humanity’ also serve the military?