A new Code of Ethics was recently released by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a professional organization for programmers and technology companies that has aimed to set the tone for ethics in the industry for decades. Its previous ethics code was last updated in 1992, before social media, e-commerce, widespread GPS tracking, the epidemic pf network hacking, bots, trolls, artificial intelligence, and the proliferation of wired cameras on store fronts, house entryways, and family cars, just to name a few of the ominous new developments that has made expanding technology the single greatest ethical challenge in the history of mankind. Most professional codes of ethics have not kept pace with technology, but for a computer organization to be so far behind is embarrassing.
The ACM committee surveyed the international association’s approximately 100,000 members as part of its process. The result is a list of principles and guidelines rather than rules: there is no enforcement mechanism. Nor is there any way to force members to read the thing, much less use it. I’ll say this: the code is ambitious. For example, the Code addresses”The Terminator’s” Skynet scenario, urging members to take “extraordinary” care to avoid the perils of artificial intelligence, and robots that learn from experience and modify their own actions without the need for re-programming by a human being.
The new code addresses the Big Data ethics issue, and holds that tech companies should collect only the minimum amount of personal information necessary for a task, protect it from unauthorized use, and give users the opportunity to give informed consent regarding their data’s use. This and other provisions in the Code I would mark as “aspirational,” or perhaps “cover” or even “pie in the sky.” Without enforcement, such “rules” amount to lip service at best, deception at worst.
As with most ethics codes, this one indulges in convenient vagueries that purport to give guidance, but really don’t. For example, the Code’s “first principle” states that the primary obligation of all computer professionals is to “to use their skills for the benefit of society, its members, and the environment surrounding them.” And who determines THAT pray tell? The technicians who made Skynet thought that it would be a boon to humanity, and it ended up destroying humanity. “Benefits” is the most subjective of concepts. Similarly, the code exhorts the technical community to mitigate the negative effects of technologies they are responsible for, and if that can’t be done, perhaps to even refrain from marketing some products.
To help companies and tech workers apply the ethical code’s principles, ACM is launching an“Integrity Project,” which will produce case studies about particular ethical dilemmas, and an “Ask an Ethicist” advice column.