Keeping Technology Ethical – Whose Responsibility Is It?

Make no mistake, Jacob Ward works the technology beat.

He is an NBC News technology correspondent, the former editor-in-chief of Popular Science magazine and an author.

But for him, staying on top of the latest technology trends doesn’t just mean gadgets and gizmos. Ward is most interested in the human behavior and ethical conundrums those tech trends reveal.

So when he talks about the disruptive technologies that will shape the 21st century, as he will as a keynote speaker at the ASCE 2020 Convention, his perspective is holistic, his focus is on people.

Ward recently talked with ASCE News about how technology, human behavior and ethics are inextricably intertwined; and why civil engineers might be the best people to address those issues.

ASCE News: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Jacob Ward: The book I’m writing is called “The Loop,” and it’s about the long-term, intergenerational effects of new technological systems on human behavior.

And it’s a thing that I think civil engineers are in a better position to think about than most people, because civil engineers are expected to build things to a 100- or 200-year standard. They’re supposed to build things that withstand statistical anomalies and unforeseen threats. And I think that technology can learn a great deal from that, because what we’re seeing are huge behavioral changes in people who interact with the new kinds of AI-driven, pattern-recognition technology.

I’ll give you an example. There is a whole category of art, writing and music that is being selected, curated or in some ways even created using AI. And there is a company that is helping production studios and literary agents, publishing houses and film divisions to choose the most successful scripts using AI to identify patterns inside the writing that look like the patterns we’ve seen in other hits of the past.

Now, on one hand, it is opening the door to all sorts of new writers because they can spot a winner among communities that have been overlooked in the past. On the other hand, are we creating an echo chamber where we’re only sampling the same little body of successful scripts, which means in the future we’re going to only watch a variation on the same movie over and over again?

The loop that I’m trying to articulate is the loop of pattern recognition, suggestion and selection that might sort of, if it goes the wrong way, collapse human choice so that we’re all wearing beige and drinking Soylent. You know what I mean? [laughs] It could go wrong real quick.

So one thing I’m excited to talk to ASCE about is how do we take some of these fundamental long-term planning principles that have been a part of civil engineering for so long and bring that wisdom across to these technologies that are being deployed to shape human behavior and choice?

headshot of Ward

ASCE News: What has COVID-19 taught us about the need for disruptive technologies?

Ward: We are certainly seeing the enormous logistical opportunity to implement all sorts of facilitative technologies that had otherwise been waiting for a market or waiting for a use case.

Of course, all the utopian technologists thought, “Oh, this will all happen against the backdrop of a really positive economic situation. This will all be of enormous benefit to a country that sees 3 percent unemployment. It’s going to create this whole other category of historically successful.”

Well, turns out instead we’re adapting this technology at a time when we’re going to see double-digit unemployment probably for a huge period of time and may see a global recession the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.

So it’s a very fraught moment full of inequities and fear. But at the same time, it is an opportunity where we’re going to see huge amounts of change and huge amounts of technology get real-world tested in a way that we would never have done before.

ASCE News: In that sense, is it exciting that our hands are almost being forced toward innovation?

Ward: I consider it a very interesting time. I feel very lucky to be a journalist at this time, just because it is such a fascinating moment – being able to talk about a pre-vaccine and a post-vaccine world.

Now, even when we were at a place of 3 percent unemployment, I was still quite discouraged by what I was finding about the economic and social implications of how a lot of technology was being deployed. And I worry that in this moment we are going to see an even more unequal distribution of wealth. We’re going to see some very shallow consideration of the implications of technology before we deploy it on a mass scale. I’m worried about this phase.

That said, I think a lot of companies and technologists are seeing a responsibility to not be on the wrong side of history when it comes to issues of racial inequality and gender equality. We were already on a path toward trying to think about a lot of that. The word “ethics” had become really standard for all sorts of technology considerations even before now when suddenly it is a matter of life and death, prosperity and poverty. It has really been thrown into sharp relief.

So I think people are seeing that the stakes are quite high. Certainly, it is a fascinating time to be thinking about all of this stuff, and I’m glad that everybody, including ASCE, is doing so.

ASCE News: Whose responsibility do you think it is when it comes to ethics? Is it the person developing the technology, or does it lie more in the deployment of the idea?

Ward: I think it’s everybody’s responsibility all the way up and down the chain of creation to be thinking about the implications of what they’re building. And it has not always been the perceived professional responsibility of engineers. They just executed what they were asked to execute.

I’ve had many very interesting interviews in my career going back to the ’90s all the way up to now where people say, “It’s just my job to create the most innovative thing I can. It is not my job to come up with the ethics to go along with it.” But now you’re seeing huge numbers of people beginning to push back against that assumption.

I think that for the companies and individuals who invent an entirely new way of communicating between one another, or create an entirely new way for wealth to take virtual form and move from person to person, or a whole new system identifying anyone from a crowd based on the features of their face, or even the way that they walk – you are, by making those things, inventing something that no one has had to grapple with before. So I think with that there has to come some responsibility to create ethics that no one has thought about before.

And from scientists and technologists, I very often hear, “If it’s there to be done, if it’s there to be discovered, then we should just do it!” And I don’t know if we have to live by that assumption or should live by that assumption anymore.

That said, I don’t want to put it all on the laps of just the people doing the creative work. It’s also very important to step up an enlightened regulatory regime in the United States. Europe has really led the way in a lot of that. We in the U.S. are very quick to say that we can’t use Huawei, let’s say, with the deployment of 5G across the country, because it would expose us to what the administration says is a national security threat.

OK, but at the same time, we’re not seeing the Trump administration step forward and create a national body for creating our own 5G alternative. We say that we don’t want Chinese surveillance systems to be deployed across the world the way they currently are.  The capital cities of Ecuador, Nigeria, they’re buying huge quantities of Chinese surveillance technology as part of a program China has called the Safe City Initiative. At the same time, we’re not offering an alternative.

We want there to be a way of fighting misinformation in the United States, but we barely regulate online platforms when it comes to political advertising, political misinformation, meme armies, all that stuff.

The raw, creative work of making this technology and the moneymaking apparatus that goes along with it moves so much faster than the fundamental ethics of the companies and the people who create it and the regulatory insight that we’re going to need from Washington to make this stuff work better.

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