In response to the proliferation of fake news and Russian meddling on American social media, schools that groom the next generation of technology specialists — including premier colleges such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford — are offering new courses on computer ethics.
It’s about time.
I have taught science in medical and graduate schools for 46 years, and ethics in science for the past 23 years — ethics are essential for any scientific endeavor. In medical sciences, for example, we have ethics in research to deal with ensuring the integrity of the process. Human volunteers must be shielded from harm in clinical trials as much as possible, and the protective measures used reflect attempts to work from an ethical framework.
Methods utilized in producing the data in support of a drug license also must be ethical. The data must not be falsified or misleading; it must be whole and not selective. In a narrow view, the purpose of these principles within our scientific endeavors is safety. Our methods attempt to ensure safe drugs, food, bridges and cars. In a wider view, using an ethical framework in scientific enterprise disperses ethical principles throughout society; patients and consumers adopt these ethical standards and come to expect and even extend these standards to other endeavors.
But we have failed to develop an ethical framework when it comes to technology or to understand the impact new media would have on our behavior and societal relationships.
We need to examine the current landscape of ethics within the rapidly expanding technology sector. Just as scientific research has added requirements for classes in ethics in research, the tech sector must develop widespread ethical educational efforts. The lack of firm ethical principles allowed a serious disruption to our 2016 political election and is changing the brains of social media users and rapidly changing the workplace and our economy. What has become commonplace has become acceptable. Robots replace humans in jobs; testing of consumer behavior without consent is unquestioned; acceptability of facial and voice recognition is rarely challenged even though misuse and privacy issues are frightening; and vitriolic, divisive missives are the norm on social media.
The frontier mentality in the tech world, which capitalism has allowed to grow with minimal regulation, is a product of a culture that has pushed ethics out of our education system for fear of infringing on disparate beliefs. Yet if ethics were taught from elementary schools through professional schools in every field, the common ethical threads would knit us together in a common goal. Of course, we can leave out Aristotle and Kant from our elementary school teaching. But we can teach the young students to be truthful, to have empathy for others, to be helpful and respectful of fellow students. In many districts, teachers already promote such understanding. But these simple yet profound ideals should be carried through from kindergarten through graduate and career education to promote an ethical underpinning for all of our endeavors. (Hey business schools: I’m looking at you, too.)
It is never too late to begin. Let’s set a path to teach ethics from simple to complex needs throughout education. The current Western world’s dominance is not an accident; it is an outcome of the enlightenment, education and scientific advancement. A more educated and grounded population in understanding the values of our ethical standards may prevent us one day from voting a demagogue into the most powerful position in the world. In this way, we can preserve our way of life and our democracy.
Adil E. Shamoo is a bioethicist and professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine. He has been teaching a course on Responsible Conduct of Research since 1994. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.