Big thinkers mull ethics in technology

TORONTO – Technology evolves too fast for the law to keep pace, leaving our own ethics as the only safeguard against its abuse, a panel of technology and ethics professionals told an audience at the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference

Thursday.

“”Related to information technology, I would argue laws are good, but they’re never going to be adequate,”” said Dr. Albert Erisman, co-founder and co-director of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Institute for Business Technology and Ethics. Erisman, who served 12 years as director of mathematics and computing technology for The Boeing Co., added legislation cannot keep up with the 18-month cycle of chip-speed change governed by Moore’s Law.

Gary McIntyre, an IBM Global Services Canada security and privacy consultant, and Mike Gurski, the senior policy and technology advisor for the Information & Privacy Commission of Ontario, said legal avenues are limited by borders as well as time problems.

“”The biggest problem is which law applies,”” McIntyre said, alluding to the differences in legislation in different countries. “”If you did have a complaint, what recourse to law would you have?””

The panelists, which tackled subjects as diverse as Internet music piracy, biotechnology and how undergrads can remain ethical once they enter the workforce, also said ethics are needed because technology is not in itself neutral.

“”Science and technology are not neutral; they are incredibly flexible,”” McIntyre added. “”Security is an extremely powerful tool. It is also an extremely dangerous weapon.””

Erisman said technology is ambivalent rather than neutral.

“”Ambivalent means it plays both sides; neutral mean it’s not in the game. Technology is definitely in the game,”” he said. “”Technology is an amplifier. It doesn’t create the problem, but it amplifies the problem that is already there.””

Dr. Elizabeth Ann McGregor, a research fellow in Harvard University’s technology and ethics project, went further than Erisman and McIntyre, saying science is situated inside society and the technologies we create have a profound impact.

“”The genie is out of the bottle and we cannot pretend to put it back in,”” she said. “”But you and I have a responsibility to proactively think of a set of rules.””

Gurksi added technology is challenging the borders of privacy, with companies like Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. developing products to keep track of users.

“”There’s a strong drive for an ambient curiousity,”” he said. “”Companies want to know. Governments want to know. It’s not really neutral. Nor is it really flexible. The code that you write takes a strict direction.””

When questioned by the audience about corporate power, the panelists responded by saying the public, especially those soon to enter the workforce, have the ability to make technology work towards positive ends.

“”No corporation wants privacy law, because it’s expensive,”” McIntyre said. “”The reason there are some is because people (demanded it).””

But more than anything else, the panelists stressed to the undergrad audience the importance of ethical conduct.

“”For all the progress mankind has made, it seems our ethics have not kept pace,”” said Doug Bryden, executive director for the Institute for Global Ethics Canada. Pointing to the Exxon Valdez spill and recently-discovered improprieties surrounding Yorkton Securities Inc., he added. “”I think it’s fair to say that if we don’t pay more attention to ethics, we will not survive the 21st century.””

“”Ethics and professionalism are inseparable in the technology workplace,”” said ethics and professionalism lecturer Roger Boisjoly, adding an ethical work environment translates into increased productivity and long-term stability.

Boisjoly practices what he preaches. A Morton Thiokol Inc. engineer during the 1986 Challenger explosion, Boisjoly went public with information about the incident that raised questions about organizational misbehaviour at National Aeronautics Space Agency and his former employer.

“”I sacrificed my whole career to expose what happened with Challenger,”” he said. “”Do I have any regrets? Absolutely not.””

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