Monique Morrow

Chief Technology Strategist

Why Ethical Considerations Must Be Prioritized In Technology and Innovation

September 29, 2016

I am proud and honored to be the new co-chair for the IEEE Ethics in Autonomous Systems—Mixed Reality Committee alongside IEEE Futurist, Jay Iorio. The overarching objective of this Initiative complements IEEE’s main goal which is to advance technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. To that end, this initiative is specifically designed to ensure that every technologist behind new innovations is educated, trained and empowered to prioritize ethical considerations in the design and development of autonomous and intelligent systems.

It is critical that technologists are trained in ethics so they can build and design technology that promotes and inspires our collective empathy, our work, ourselves and our society as a whole. Here are a few examples of how and why ethically-minded technology is so important today and into the future.

Virtual Reality As A Means To Experience Others’ Existences

Right now for many of us, when we think about VR we think about it generally in terms of advancing media consumption, from games to sports to politics and movies. Virtual reality can certainly tell a richer story because you don’t simplywatch it, you experience it.

Therefore, VR represents a breakthrough way that people can experience not simply media in new ways, but others’ unique lives. Imagine an advanced virtual world, like an evolved Second Life that requires a headset, where there is a stable of AI-animated avatars that behave in a way that statistically reflected the population. For example, a man could be a woman, a police officer could be a recent immigrant, a person could have a physical disability.

Imagine what you would learn through this exercise of experiencing other people’s lives and conditions? This could become part of our standard education process. If put into practice, this could significantly improve our collective ability to identify with people who have very different experiences. In today’s political climate, this has never seemed more important.

Exposure Therapy As A Means to Change Psychotherapy

Advanced VR can also work to change the brain’s plasticity in ways that have never previously been possible. What does this mean? From relieving simple fears of animals or heights, to helping the debilitating effects of PTSD, retraining the brain to process stimuli differently can be powerful.

This type of treatment can also work to prepare soldiers to go to war or train employees to deal with intensive work environments or field operations. There are clear positives to how this can be useful, but there are also important questions to be asked about harnessing the ability to make the brain process events differently. Is it okay to train a person’s brain to make them comfortable doing something that, under normal circumstances, makes them uncomfortable? Ethical consideration about how this technology is designed and built is paramount.

Virtual Agents Who Take Actions On Our Behalf

Imagine the future where you are able to see your doctor when you want, where you want, without the hassle and wait of today’s healthcare system. In the future, a virtual agent imbued with AI characteristics could be the solution. Instead of seeing your actual doctor, you are seeing her or his virtual agent that has the ability to develop a long-term, human-like relationship but is actually a stand-in, a complete software concoction. This software concoction isn’t a person, but is a constantly shifting team of experts whose opinions are reconciled by artificial intelligence. This virtual agent could become typical in areas like healthcare that require both deep and broad expertise.

This brings up critical ethical considerations, how would you teach such an agent? Who would be ultimately responsible for the decisions these committees masquerading as individuals might make?

The Importance Of Seeing Beyond Our Perspective

For the next generation, a large part of day-to-day life will fall under the control of software. From going to work, to socializing, to finanical planning, to cleaning the house, to tracking health, to going shopping and being entertained, these tasks will be modeled in software so as to allow automatic interoperability and human interaction with real-time content that is pulled instantly.

Yes, this will be convenient, but it will also create ethical problems. Without interjection, this will naturally rush us into a software-meditated world in which we see, hear and experience only what we want to see, hear and experience. A “well designed” product will eliminate the noise and just provide us with our “echo chamber” of the opinions we agree with, the music we liked in the past, the food we like to eat, while only being exposed to a sliver of new content based on our previous likes and interests. You see this already in your Facebook feed, for example. This creates an illusion of a comfort, but it fuels a homogeneous world. With inevitable commercial pressure to give consumers what they want, this will be the natural progression of technology.

Software perfectly tailored to manage our specific needs, likes and everyday tasks will eliminate outside obstacles or friction, which can hurt us. Humans do not grow when surrounded only by those who agree with them. A thoughtful quote,“the blessing is outside of your comfort zone,” encapsules this. Our comfort zone, what we know we like, is comfortable, but it is not the place where we grow.Humans grow when confronted by events, people and experiences they would never choose and, honestly, might actively avoid if they could.

But the magic and inspiration happens outside of the comfort zone. A surprisingly important piece of our lives hinges on the unpredictable, the serendipitous, the random, the uncomfortable.

Now, the big question, How do you program thatHow could an AI-system make such decisions? Is there any commercial motivation to make software-guided experiences less pleasant? When everything has been systematized, when does chance occur? When the randomness of life is removed to make things more pleasant, more convenient, easier—what is the human cost?

These are big concepts, and big questions, and I hope it helps to illustrate the deep importance of initiatives like IEEE’s Ethics in Autonomous Systems. So much more work is needed in these areas, and I am so excited to be a part of it.