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....and another FC: APIs Are Not A Substitute for Ethics

Building on a Twitter post from the other day, my latest Fast Company essay looks at what happens when we try to limit misbehavior through tools, not rules.

The best kind of rules are those we apply to ourselves, those we believe in. Ethics--sometimes thought of as "how you behave when no-one is looking"--have the advantage of being readily applied to novel situations, and able to guide responses fitting the spirit of the law. People in positions of social power (such as doctors and lawyers) often receive training in ethics as part of their educations. What I'd like to see is the introduction of ethics training in these new catalytic disciplines.

Computer programmers, biotechnologists, environmental scientists, neuroscientists, nanotech engineers--all of these fields, and more, should have at least a course in ethics as part of their degree requirements. Ideally, it should be a recurring element in every class, so that it's not seen as just another hoop to jump through (check off the "is this ethical? Y/N" box), but instead as a consideration woven into every professional decision.

Along the way, I take a slap at a couple of my usual targets, too.


Scientists get ethics training, both formal and informal. Singularitarians et al are another matter. But they're not scientists, they just like to think so.

Had my copy of Peter Singer's book for years after my ethics class. Who doesn't take ethics in college? Great class, not to mention easy A.

An ethics course during my B.S. in Engineering through Boston University was a graduating requirement for any engineer I believe. I'd be surprised if this wasn't standard for most university engineering departments now-a-days. And not just degrees for Aerospace or Civil engineer, but Bio-engineering, Nano physical engineers, etc. The question I have is if a single course is rigorous enough and specific to their field. The course I took was broader in scope dealing primarily with how to handle someone you think might be in violation of certain ethical standards, not necessarily discussing said standards. Maybe even more importantly, what are universities and corporations doing to police themselves?

OUCH! I don't like trusting to ethics training. Most scientists learn about the history, philosophy and ethics of science after Grad school, if at all. When I did my MBA 20 years ago I discovered most schools follow a similar pattern. In year one you study the mechanics of accounting in the first semester, and then you learn how accounting rules can be bent. In year two you study ethics first and then how to justify following the letter but not the spirit of rules and regs.
I think we may have to trust to luck, as we havw with the bomb for over 60 years. With the new technologies the biggest danger will continue to be the secret government labs. In short, the biggest danger is the politicians, not the researchers. How do we control politicians?

I think you are off target here. There was an ethics component of my computer science degree I did 30 years ago.

Also those who join any professional organization sign up to an ethical code of conduct.

I suppose only doctors _have_ to sign up to an ethical code of conduct (towards their patients). I note that didn't stop some supporting the tobacco industry for instance.

So we are just down to the human condition, as ever.

If you are talking about enforcing sign up across all scientists, then shouldn't that include the social sciences too? Politics, economics, etc?

And anticipating unintended consequences of APIs? If you figure that one out you probably just solved AI too ;-)

APIs Are Not A Substitute for Ethics --- they are an expresion of them.

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