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A Day in the Life of a Tech Ethicist | Business

New technologies have always been treated cautiously, with television originally feared for its potential to rot children’s brains and transform us all into couch potatoes. More recently, worries have gathered like storm clouds around smartphone use (it causes cancer!) and social media usage (it’s RUINING your life!).

But lately, these concerns have taken on a darker hue: with their incessant pinging and nudging, are smartphones irrevocably fracturing our attention? Are they destroying our self esteem? Are they disrupting democracy?

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Growing awareness has culminated in the launch of campaigns for more ethical technology development, pioneered by the very people responsible for making smartphones and social media so addictive.

The Time Well Spent movement, from the Centre for Humane Technology, is supported by prominent tech executives turned critics, such as former-Googler Tristan Harris, hailed by Atlantic magazine as ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience’.

Another is the All Tech is Human conference, which covers the ethical design of technology, pioneered by David Polgar, one of the most prominent tech ethicists in the field.

Techworld spoke to Polgar recently to discuss the role of a tech ethicist, why this is a growing area, and some of the biggest ethical concerns of tech today.

What is a tech ethicist?

Polgar makes a fundamental distinction between how a tech ethicist views technology to how an engineer does. “They typically see a societal problem that they try to craft a solution to,” says Polgar. “Whereas, a tech ethicist sees the solution that was created, and finds the problems with that.”

He points out that the creators of some of the most widely used technologies – Google, Youtube, Facebook – didn’t necessarily think about how these technologies could be abused while developing them. He identifies facial recognition and its ability to identify attributes like homosexuality as an example of a technology that is currently receiving attention for its potentially dangerous ramifications.

“I like to call it the Oppenheimer moment,” says Polgar, referring to the former theoretical physicist credited with being ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ who famously evoked Bhagavad Gita when he realised what he had created, saying: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

While not quite equating the damaging potential of smartphones and social media to a nuclear bomb, Polgar says the moment translates to the realisation of tech creators that: “I’ve created something that can have a major impact on society.”

There are signs, however, that tech companies are perhaps becoming a little more aware of the impact of their creations, as seen when Google recently refused to renew its contract to develop AI for United States Department of Defense’s drone programme.

How do you become a tech ethicist?

Polgar has a background as an attorney and as an academic. “One of the things I was surprised by was there actually wasn’t a lot of focus on this area outside of academia,” says Polgar, pointing to MIT’s Sherry Turkle as one of the only long term researchers into the potential dangers of technology. 

When he began to move into this area, he felt uncomfortable being introduced at events as a ‘tech expert’. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not talking about the newest gadget and its utility or its functionality,” says Polgar. “I’m talking about what the newest iPhone is doing to our ability to have a conversation, to relate to one another – how it’s altering the human condition.”

This is how he came to settle upon the ‘tech ethicist’ label, which felt truer to what he does.

Why is there a need for tech ethicists?

Polgar says there is a greater need than ever for people to take up ethical roles within the tech industry.

“We’ve realised that technology is not just technology,” he says, “technology is society. It’s so important to democracy and to our understanding of the world, that it behoves us as a society to not just populate the creation or deployment of technology with people who have computer science degrees.”

Instead, Polgar says that a greater diversity of thought is needed, requiring the attention of philosophers, psychologists, academics and lawyers too.

He points to the example of the launch of Google Duplex – the creepily realistic voice assistant – as an example of when there should have been a greater diversity of backgrounds in the room. Although the engineers were preoccupied with developing the impressive technology, no one in the room predicted the push back that occurred because the human speaking to the assistant in the demo was not informed they were speaking to a robot.

“I like to say that I shine a light on blind spots, and really, Silicon Valley has shown that it has incredible blind spots,” says Polgar. 

How are codes of ethics decided upon?

One major role for tech ethicists is attempting to create a globally recognised and agreed upon code of ethics into technologies. But finding common ground for something so broad and diverse, with major commercial interests involved, can be a difficult task.

This is the fundamental problem with simply telling tech giants such as Facebook and Google to act differently. “If we tell people to do good but make less money, that’s where it becomes problematic in a capitalist society,” Polgar says.

He points to Youtube as one of the most obvious examples of this dichotomy playing out, because their revenue model is tied up in advertising. “They have a perverse incentive to send out and increase extreme content, because they know statistically that extreme content and fake news, misinformation, and salacious content is something that users watch more,” he said.

When it comes to agreeing on an ethical framework, Polgar believes that goal to be, “a misleading question, because we don’t necessarily always have to agree on ethics. We’ve been disagreeing about ethics for thousands of years, throughout history, civilisation. Aristotle. It isn’t a new thing but what it’s going to do is inject thoughtfulness into it. That’s the way I like to think about it,” he said.

“Really, our aim with All Tech is Human is to better align the business interests with human interests, because at present, they’re misaligned.” 

Polgar says there is too much attention on how powerful individuals such as Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey can become more responsible.

“That’s important, but at the same time that’s also placing a ridiculous amount of faith in one person. Why should one person be responsible for two billion lives? That’s outrageous.”

Instead, Polgar advocates for a plurality of invested parties. “One of the issues is that I think it’s going to be more about multiple actors acting in concert,” says Polgar, saying it will most likely be a combination of laws and regulations that are passed. One of his projects is setting up an ethics teaching hub in universities. 

He says the state will be crucial to influencing the operations of companies. “It’s really akin to a factory that has some form of pollution and we as a society would say: ‘We need to curb that pollution’,” he says.

Is ethical tech a growth area?

“We can try to broaden their approach by saying, ‘we want to inject responsibility and ethics into their curricula,’ but I think that is just one part of it, that the real, more important part, is ensuring that there is more of a societal engagement with the creation and deployment of technology,” says Polgar. 

He believes that one day, an inter-governmental body will exist that handles these issues. 

There is currently growing awareness of this sphere. “I had somebody the other day approach me and say, ‘because I’m a joint computer science and philosophy major, how do I become a tech ethicist?'” says Polgar. “I would not be surprised if it’s a major growing field in the next five years.”

Polgar says that one of the reasons big tech is (at least appearing) to take a more active interest in these issues, is partly because tech creators are becoming more thoughtful about their inventions and their legacies. 

“There’s only so many Teslas you can buy,” he says. “That thing nagging at their soul is they want to make sure they have a positive societal legacy, because they’re the difference between somebody who is seen as having a positive lasting impact versus somebody who is seen as a robber baron – they have millions of dollars but they screwed people over.”

Undoubtedly consumer pressure also plays a role in the new found ethical interests of tech CEOs, but as Polgar points out, many technologies such as Facebook were developed by creators barely out of their teens. 

He points out that now, Zuckerberg is preoccupied by what his kids will make of his legacy. “Are they going to view that as ‘he made a lot of money but it had a negative impact on society’, or see Facebook as something that really did bring people closer together, as was the initial – at least stated – objective of the platform?”


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