What is Computer Ethics?

This is my summary of the article “What is computer ethics” which is a required reading for the “Information Law and Policy” class.

A proposed definition

As computers invade every section of our society, a new problem arises in the field of ethics because more often than not, there is a policy vacuum about how computer technology should be used. The new capabilities that computer technology provides us with, enable new choices for action. And in such scenarios, along with the policy vacuum, there often exists a conceptual vacuum. In such cases, a conceptual framework for understanding ethical problems needs to be created before a policy framework can be implemented, which in turn allows us to reevaluate our values as a society.

As such, the field of computer ethics considers the relationships among facts, conceptualizations, policies and societal values with regard to constantly changing computer technology.

Why are computers “revolutionary”?

Computers are logically malleable in that they can be shaped and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in terms of inputs, outputs and connecting logical operations. And this malleability more and more being limited only by the human imagination. Just as steam power replaced human power and led to the Industrial revolution, so is the logical power of computers replacing the power of the human mind and is leading to the Computer Revolution.

Anatomy of the Computer Revolution

Looking at the Industrial revolution gives us an idea about how revolutions proceed. The Industrial Revolution proceeded in 2 stages:

  1. new technology and processes were introduced, tested and improved. This led to industrialization of certain limited segments of the economy, e.g. the agriculture and textiles.
  2. the new technology permeated through every aspect of society, and spread across the world. This led to new social structures such as labor unions, and urbanization, and introduced many new social evils.

The Computer Revolution has pretty much followed the same 2 stage process. The last few decades have seen a slew of new technologies being introduced, tested, and improved upon. But over the last few years, especially with the rise of mobile phones and Internet of Things, the permeation stage has begun. The use of computers now raise ethical questions because not only are computers “aiding” humans, it is also influencing them (e.g. election results can be known while voting is still on, the concept of money has become intangible with the use of electronic transactions, algorithms that help students learn).

The Invisibility Factor

Most of the time and under most circumstances today, computer operations have become invisible. This creates policy vacuums about how to use computer technology.

The first and most obvious invisibility is invisible abuse. This is the intentional use of a computer to engage in unethical conduct. Hacking or stealing of personal identification would fall under this category. What implications does electronic surveillance have, e.g. if a company is monitoring a competitor? Or its own employees?

A second form of invisibility that involves computer operations is that of the invisible programming values. The programmers who write a computer program may knowingly or unknowingly make decisions which have a huge impact later on. E.g. the computer simulator for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was programmed to simulate possible malfunctions, including malfunctions which were dependent on other malfunctions. But when the actual failure was caused by simultaneous, independent malfunctions, which the simulator was not programmed to do.

A third type of the invisibility factor is the invisible complex calculations. As computers permeate more and more into our lives, how much should we trust a computer’s invisible calculations? How much trust do we place in all the programmers who wrote the many different programs that need to run for a particular complex calculation to succeed? E.g. we may trust an image recognition program, and we may trust a missile targeting program, but do we trust a computer to recognize a target and then launch a missile on its own?

A Partial Solution

One of the strengths of computers is the ability to locate hidden information and display it. But humans do not want to be shown all the operations that a computer does. This, and the invisibility factor, present in front of us a dilemma – one which makes computer ethics so important.