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Tech Ethics as Open Philosophy

By Daniel Leufer on Feb 25, 2019


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With all the recent scandals involving Big Tech, there’s been a lot of talk about the need for more regulation (and better enforcement of regulation) in the tech industry. Indeed, technological innovation is moving at such a blistering pace that existing regulation struggles to keep up, leaving us exposed to bad faith exploitation of loopholes in our laws.

The process of creating new laws to regulate technological innovation involves asking challenging questions such as: Is innovation always in the name of “the good”, or should some things be protected from disruption? How can we decide on what counts as disinformation or ‘fake news’, and who should have the power to make that decision? These questions are highly relevant to our current predicament, and often involve technical considerations that can make it difficult for non-experts to participate.

To take just one current example, it’s hard to have a coherent conversation about the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI) if the participants in the conversation don’t understand its technical aspects. At the same time, applications of AI have serious political, social, and legal consequences, and these are areas which typically fall outside the expertise of the average expert in machine learning. The questions posed by technological innovation are, in fact, not fully within the domain of any one expert. Creating and implementing effective regulation requires the participation, input and cooperation of a range of experts from different fields.

Beyond this necessary ‘high-level’ conversation, I believe that it’s also important to take these conversations into the public domain, and this is where I think that philosophers have something to offer. Whereas the technical or legal intricacies of the debate about regulating AI might be off-putting to non-experts, the ethical questions raised by this issue are something that we can all have our say on.

Ethics is fundamentally something that concerns us all. Everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a good life, on what we should do and on what we shouldn’t, and discussing ethical questions is a great way to sharpen your thoughts, or to come to the realisation that it’s time to change your mind.

For the citizens of democratic countries, it is imperative that we increase our ‘technological literacy’ so that we can vote meaningfully and effectively for politicians who will implement policies that will serve our interests, whatever they may be, rather than being taken in by buzzwords, fear-mongering or false promises about technology. One way to effectively improve that technological literacy is, I believe, to promote more discussion of the ethical questions surrounding technological change.

Let’s take one example as an illustration. With the further development of activity/fitness trackers, we may approach a point at which employers, or indeed governments, start to demand that we all consent to monitoring and evaluation of our physical condition. The results of this monitoring could have a serious impact on how much we pay for insurance, or even conceivably how much tax we are required to pay (unfit people could be seen as a drain on the health service).

In this regard, for example, we can ask ourselves whether human beings have a right to be inefficient. Should we be obliged to maintain ourselves at peak physique, or should we have a protected right to be lazy and unfit without financial penalty? Such a question leads to many further questions about whether we want to use tax-funded health services to look after people with bad health habits, or whether we should only take care or people who take care of themselves. None of these questions have easy or uncontroversial answers, and most people have opinions about them that are more or less informed and developed.

Discussing such issues – and particularly hearing people articulate perspectives on them which differ from our own – is an effective way to engage people as citizens and as voters. I believe that philosophers can contribute a lot to society by leading and facilitating such discussions, and for that reason I established the Open Philosophy Network to try to start this process in Belgium.

Some great work is done by academic philosophers within the confines of the university, but it is also important for philosophers to take a leaf out of Socrates’ book by engaging in philosophical questioning in the public realm. If there’s one thing that philosophers tend to be good at, it’s asking annoying questions and upsetting people’s certainty in their opinions.

As a society, we need to open a broad conversation about where technology is taking us. If we want to move forward in an ethical manner, so that technology brings ‘the good life’ to as many people as possible, then philosophy and technology need to be open and accessible to people. Discussing tech ethics in a public forum is, I believe, one way to develop ‘open philosophy’ for the benefit of everyone.

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written by Daniel Leufer
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