Bringing the ethics into innovation

Innovative technology is not created in a vacuum but by, and for, society as a whole

At this time of the year many eyes are turned towards the new technologies coming out of big trade shows, such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. And while new technologies still have their detractors, it would be very difficult to dismiss the benefits many of them are bringing to areas such as medicine, manufacturing and ICT, to name but a few.

ethics and AI
Ethical considerations need to be taken into account when working on innovative technologies

There is absolutely no doubt that technological innovation is revolutionizing the way we lead our lives. From smart technology that will help us live longer, healthier lives to blockchain that could be used to optimize humanitarian relief, technology has the potential to “make the world a better place”. And yet, innovative uses of technology have also demonstrated how it can be problematic. These aren't the imagined scenarios where machines leave most of the world's population jobless or AI takes over the universe but real situations with real repercussions; two examples are the PredPol and COMPAS cases, where programmes used by the US police force and judicial system respectively, were shown to carry racial bias.

There is a widespread belief that technological innovation shapes society as if it were somehow disassociated from it, and yet it is a product of that very society it helps to shape and define. As such, it is imperative that the ethical implications of the technologies are taken into account right from the onset of development. This means considering the needs of civil society, working in open and transparent ways and within partnerships.

Some universities are beginning to introduce courses on ethics for their engineering students and the Council of Europe recently adopted the first European Ethical Charter on the use of artificial intelligence in judicial systems. A number of IEC standardization activities are already addressing ethical issues around AI in technologies.  

In our article Looking to the future, Peter Lanctot, Secretary of the IEC Market Strategy Board (MSB), talks about the growing importance of digital transformation and the possibility of the IEC looking into the development of standards that can mitigate the impact of potential biases resulting from algorithms.

More concretely, in July 2018, IEC together with eight other founding organizations, launched OCEANIS, a global platform whose aim is to openly discuss and collaborate on how best to support the ethical application of autonomous and intelligent systems, taking end users’ concerns into account.

With all the excitement of new tech comes the responsibility to ensure that it best serves the interests of those for whom it has been created. Ethical frameworks can help ensure this is the case.