Why ethics must be integrated into technological development
Facebook’s single internal motto, “Move fast and break things”, has been a subject of parody for years. The social media company – currently in one of its toughest times, beset by criticism and whistleblower leaks – is described by some as an example of prioritizing growth over what’s good for its people. customers and society at large.
But while the company – renamed Meta last month – may be censored, its story speaks to a larger problem that has long permeated the tech world: the belief that regulation, whether in the form of legislation by policy makers or internal ethical practices, is a threat to innovation.
It’s a belief many believe business schools should challenge, teaching that innovation is not the opposite of regulation, but is inextricably linked with it. Some argue for a holistic approach to align business with the public good and also to create a better path for the future of the digital economy.
âThere are different ways of understanding innovation,â says Alice Thwaite, technology ethicist and founder of technology ethics consultancy Hattusia. âEthics should absolutely be in this space of innovation and transformation. “
Thwaite argues that innovation, as imagined in buzzwords like “metaverse”, is not seen as “scary” as it should be. âIt’s gotten a little too comfortable recently. When companies hide behind innovation, they are often protecting the status quo.
Many large tech companies arguably fall into this category. At the heart of their hearts is the idea of ââinnovation as a way to increase user engagement, outcompete competition and keep shareholders happy.
On the other hand, regulation and ethics were often seen as obstacles. When businesses have been more proactive – like when Facebook called for more regulation from governments – it has almost always been a scandal and seemed selfish.
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The training and treatment of ethics teams also has a checkered history. Google’s artificial intelligence ethics group has become a growing source of embarrassment for the company after the departure of its co-managers under controversial circumstances.
“There is a general tendency to talk about ethics but not to do anything about it,” says Thwaite. As ethics consultancies such as Hattusia proliferate, the tech industry is still afraid of turning to a relatively new sector. “Very few are ready to take a punt,” said Thwaite.
Students in business schools need to understand historical failures, with an emphasis on applying this knowledge to shape ideas for innovation. This means seeing ethics as an integral part of business development, which would encourage future business leaders to engage with tech ethicists, even if the space remains experimental.
Training students to engage with regulations as part of the business, rather than as a barrier to be addressed when they arise, is not only good for end users. In the long run, this can limit the risk of an issue like the one Facebook faces, and the painful consequences of being taken to court or lawmakers.
It can also encourage the kind of adaptable approach needed in an era of changing regulations, as politicians show a greater willingness to tackle big (and smaller) tech. By integrating regulation into discussions around innovation, it is possible to go beyond existing paradigms and imagine better systems.
âEurope must not be trapped by simply mitigating the damage created by failed business models,â wrote Jan Penfrat, senior policy adviser at the non-profit European Digital Rights (EDRi). “On the contrary, Europe needs laws that effectively limit the power that Big Tech wields over our lives.”
Openness to innovation and the willingness to adapt are essential to the development of new technologies. In the United Kingdom, the government has sought to ensure that the country remains “the start-up nation of Europe”. Kalifa’s fintech review in February and Lord Hill’s review of the listings in April reflect a desire to maintain the shine of British technology.
Poorly enforced or excessive regulation can be a problem, but it can be defused, at least in part, by encouraging tomorrow’s business leaders to overcome the mistakes and limitations of the past. Incorporating concepts such as harm reduction and the common good can help limit these excesses.
The Silicon Valley mindset can treat regulation as anathema, a hindrance to genius, creativity and the founding author. However, the debacle facing big tech companies, including Facebook, is a reminder that a single-minded focus on growth and market dominance risks hurting us all. Treating ethics and regulation as part of innovation offers an opportunity to go beyond the decision to use existing technologies and can guide us in the technologies to be created.
âInnovation is about creating new processes and products that make the world a better place,â says Thwaite. “If that isn’t the purpose of general business and not the purpose of what we are here on this planet to do, I don’t see what it is.”