Ethics and …

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Ethics, Magazine Articles

These remarks were delivered by IEEE President and CEO J. Roberto B. de Marca at the 2014 IEEE Ethics Conference, which was also the 2014 IEEE-SSIT International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS’14), on May 24, 2014, in Chicago, IL, U.S.A.

IEEE sponsors more than 1400 conferences and workshops every year and I believe this event to be one of most important in 2014. That is why I chose to participate in this conference.

I believe that this year’s theme of “Ethics And…” encapsulates the issues of ethics in our modern world both succinctly and comprehensively. It is exactly the open-endedness of the theme of “Ethics And…” that gives it the strength and breadth to accomplish this task.

Ethical choices, in our modern world, are everywhere and becoming more complex and this symposium could not happen at a better time.

In the years to come, we will be dealing with issues of ethics that could not have been foreseen even a brief generation ago.

Modern communications and in particular the Internet have shifted the boundaries of human interaction. Communities have extended a broad geographical context, encompassing a growing number of cultures. We are also in the dawn of an extensive sensorization of our planet that will generate and store an enormous amount of data about individual personal lives. The current discussion on Internet Governance as well as technologies that are emerging such as smart cities, e-health, nanotechnology, and Big Data all demand that an ethical dimension be considered and demand attribution of ethical responsibilities.

Ethical discussion as it relates to technology advances is clearly gaining more attention with a significant amount of funds being reserved for it by governments, and publications such as the IEEE Technology Society Magazine (published by the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology) featuring an increasing number of articles dedicated to this topic.

If we go back in time, the origin of the word Ethics is not very clear. It could have derived from the word Ethos, meaning character in Greek, but it also could have an origin with the expression ta ethika () or the study of morals. The first one evolved to the current meaning of the word Ethics.

Ethics can be defined as the basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent human conduct. It can also be defined as the study of what is good and what is bad. This event is devoted to the study of actions that are required from engineers, scientists, and technologists in performing their professional duties.

Actions can be specified as governed by the triad of ethics, morals, and the law. Ethics is an individual trait while morals result from collective behavior. The legal statutes establish norms and limits for the action. It is easy to find situations where a certain action is legal – within the parameters of the local law – but it is not ethical. It is also easy to think of instances where morals and costumes that are acceptable for a given community are not considered ethical by other individuals. Since ethics is associated with the character of a person, in my opinion there is a simple statement: A person does not have “some” ethics—you are either ethical, or you are not.

Engineering is a professional field that transforms into actions knowledge developed by science. In doing so engineering bridges theory and practice in a way that is constantly changing how our society operates. Engineering and science certainly advance technology for the benefit of humanity, and IEEE plays an important role in fostering this progress. However, there is also ample evidence of negative impact of technology in different areas. There is a need to reduce or eliminate the collateral impact and unintended consequences of technology evolution. Technologists and researchers must understand the important role they have facing these challenges and how important ethical decisions are in achieving this goal.

An ethical professional does not stand idly by when lives could be affected by their action or inaction; they take action for those who will never learn of their choices.

For our global professional community, ethics must be a non-negotiable part of our composition as engineers, scientists, and technologists.

Some may say that it is acceptable to compromise one’s ethics in pursuit of a greater good. A benefit to the “greater good” is, after all, difficult to argue against, since the ultimate result will help many, while negatively affecting few.

However, this is a position that we, as stewards for the advancement of technology, cannot take. If even one person suffers because a professional acts in an unethical manner, the cost is too high.

For our global professional community, ethics must be a non-negotiable part of our composition as engineers, scientists, and technologists. It must be as ingrained within us as the guiding precepts of our respective professions.

But ethics must be demanded of our institutions as well. I am grateful for the IEEE’s commitment to ethics:

We, the members of the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct

It is that phrase “accepting a personal obligation to our profession” that I perhaps value the most. It is not merely about me, not merely about my colleagues — it is not even merely about IEEE itself. It is about our profession.

The IEEE Code of Ethics is an extremely important document that guides the behavior of the organization, its members and its volunteers. It has several statements related directly to what I described so far:

  1. to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;
  2. to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences;
  3. to be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data;
  4. to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;
  5. to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others.

In the end, it is all about the passion, the creativity, and the integrity that we have brought to our efforts as engineers, scientists, educators, and technologists ever since we chose this path.

We call ourselves technologists, but perhaps describing ourselves as humanists is closer to what we really are. The dictionary cites humanists as “persons having a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity.”

That sounds like a pursuit we have all been engaged throughout our respective careers.

I believe that was on the minds of the many technologists who, throughout decades past, helped to create professional societies like IEEE. Their focus was on those who benefited from their work, regardless of what that work was.

As I mentioned in the beginning as we move forward, creating breakthroughs in this new and ever-changing era of technology, there is a renewed need to hold fast to the precepts of ethics that we find within ourselves, and the organizations we choose to be a part of.

And as those organizations, and the millions of technologists within them, continue to work on behalf of humanity, they do so with the knowledge of the long-term impacts of their efforts.

Because of this, they work accordingly, ensuring that what they design and build has a sustainable future. Gone are the days of planned obsolescence; today, it is not about how easily a construct can be replaced, but in how long it can endure and be productive.

In the years to come, we will be dealing with issues of ethics that could not have been foreseen even a brief generation ago.

As the biological and technological converge through improved medical devices, there will be questions about their use, and about the use of the data generated by those devices.

  • Wearable and implantable devices are here, and already gathering data. Eventually, there will be millions of bits of data out there about the health of individuals and populations.
    • Will it be ethical for a third party to purchase that information, and use it in their business intelligence efforts?
    • Will it be ethical for our government to have that information? And, if we are agreeable to that—will it be ethical for our government to share that information with other governments?
  • As we engage in efforts to map the electrical complexities of the human brain, we will develop a roadmap that allows us to once and for all see the pathways for memory, for emotion, for reasoning, and for countless other neural activities. We will be able to effect dramatic change in the human mind.
    • Will it be ethical to alter those pathways? If so, where will the line for alterations be drawn? Brain injuries? Mental illness? Developmental disabilities? More to the point—who decides? The patient? The caregiver?
    • Will it be ethical to enhance the human mind? If we know the neural pathways, it is a short step to recreating them. What choices will need to be made when the brain of a Nobel Prize winner can be downloaded from the cloud—and uploaded into the mind of a ten-year-old?
    • As machine learning improves, there will be questions about what should be given over, as a responsibility, to an artificial agent—and what should not.
    • Will it be ethical for artificial agents to determine the outcome of elections, based upon data from the populace?
    • If so, who determines what data will be utilized? Who determines what individuals the data will be gathered from?
  • Will it be ethical for artificial agents to determine the outcome of healthcare treatments, based upon a combination of your data and data from a larger cohort?
    • If so, will it be you who makes a treatment decision, based upon the input from that artificial agent? Or your doctor? Or the hospital? Or an insurance company?As those bent on exploiting technology for nefarious purposes create new crimes in the digital world, there will be questions about what actions should, and should not, be undertaken to foil their efforts.
  • Will it be ethical to commit small crimes in order to catch those committing more significant crimes?
    • Is the invasion of an individual’s privacy at a decision-making level justified when trying to save a thousand lives? Is it justified when trying to save just one?
  • Will it be ethical to use the private data of a population to anticipate criminal or terroristic behavior?
    • Who will use that data? Governments? The private sector? Local police forces?

I know that today and tomorrow, topics such as these have been and will be the focus of your discussions. As I said at the outset, the Symposium’s theme of “Ethics And…” was an exceptional choice, for it points to the breadth and scope of how many facets of our lives, our professions, and our societies require ethical choices and right action.

We all bring different perspectives to the practice of ethics, and what is a “right” choice, as we would define it. But at the core of all of this lies a deep and abiding commitment to the health, well-being, and future of our families, our communities, and our world.


J. Roberto B. De Marca