New technologies and ethics: 2019 Tech Faculty lecture

What word best describes your organisation’s approach to tech ethics? We started last night’s Tech Faculty lecture with this audience question and while there were some positive words, the overwhelming view was ‘confused’, as you can see below.

Our keynote speaker was one of the field’s leading experts, Professor Luciano Floridi, and he aimed to reduce this confusion, giving a thought provoking talk about the changing tech environment, the role of ethics and its relationship with law and governance. He talked particularly about the way that technology breaks long-standing assumptions and ‘glue’ between things like presence and location - tech enables you to be ‘present’ to do a task like banking or shopping without needing to be physically located there. He also talked how AI increasingly separates ‘agency’ from ‘intelligence’. Tasks that require intelligence when done by a human can increasingly be done by machines that are not intelligent.

These changes have profound implications and he went onto explain how ethics can guide our design and use of technology in such a way that we maximise the benefits, minimise the harms and avoid the underuse of it. In the process, he clearly separated ethics, law and governance. While ‘playing by the rules’ and following the laws was necessary, it wasn’t sufficient – businesses needed to embed ethics in their thinking.

Catherine Miller of doteveryone, the think tank for responsible tech, responded to the lecture. She talked about the aftermath of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica case and how nothing really changed. There may be have been fines, bad publicity and share price drops, but people kept using Facebook, so nobody felt there was any need to change. As a result, she argued that we need to ground our thinking about ethics in the context in which tech is built, including the economic incentives, as these present real barriers to change.

However, she was optimistic about the future. Their research showed that tech workers want to do good things with tech and increasingly only want to work for companies which are ethical. The war for talent meant that this grassroots approach could move tech companies to become more ethical.

I finished the presentations with a short summary of our report on New technologies, ethics and accountability, and some of the work that ICAEW is doing in the space. This includes looking at our own code of ethics and its fitness for purpose in a more tech-dominated world, and also how chartered accountants can contribute to the wider debate and help business build the right governance around tech ethics.

To complete the ICAEW perspective, during the Q&A section, Malcolm Bacchus, chair of ICAEW’s Ethics Standards Committee, asked if there should be a code of ethics for directors, outlined the work his committee is undertaking and made a call for volunteers to help in the process. You can see the full panel in the picture below.

A recording of the lecture will be made available soon if you would like to find out more.