President Karen Bartleson On the Ethical Implications of Disruptive Technologies

She discusses the importance of IEEE’s initiative on artificial intelligence and autonomous systems

26 June 2017

Ethics and technology are not new areas for IEEE. Our commitment to advancing technology to benefit humanity—via ethical behavior among those working within IEEE fields of interest—has guided us and our predecessor societies since the early days of their formation. We adopted our first code of ethics more than 100 years ago, in 1914. The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology has been bringing together experts in professional ethics and in ethics applied to the technology design process for more than 45 years through conferences, publications, and special initiatives.

However, with the ongoing development of powerful technologies and disruptive innovations such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems (AI/AS) comes the need for greater social responsibility and accountability from the technology community. Hence, many IEEE fields, and engineering in general, are beginning to consider ethics like never before.

There is no doubt that AI is transforming how we work, play, and think in revolutionary ways. Recent developments in AI-focused areas herald its full-fledged arrival via autonomous automobiles, cognitive computing, and collaborative robotics. Like any disruptive innovation, AI presents a number of complex public policy challenges in terms of our moral values and ethical principles that require extensive knowledge of science and technology for effective decision-making. These issues span a diverse spectrum of applications including agriculture, communications, energy, the environment, health care, and transportation.

IEEE is already working to prioritize the maximum benefit to humanity and the natural environment, while mitigating the risks and negative impact as AI/AS evolve as socio-technical systems. IEEE members are leading efforts to integrate ethical considerations into the design of these innovations in several ways: by bringing together leaders within the fields of ethics and AI; by sharing expertise, perspectives, and ideas at conferences and workshops; by engaging in international, consensus-based standards development; and by fostering collaboration at all levels of inquiry and initiative. 

The IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems brings together multiple voices in the AI/AS communities to advance a public discussion of how these intelligent and autonomous technologies can be aligned to moral values and ethical principles that prioritize human well-being. The purpose of this initiative is to ensure every technologist is educated, trained, and empowered to prioritize ethical considerations in the design and development of AI/AS technologies.

Under the Global Initiative, the “Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well­being with Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems” document was released late last year. This impactful document provides insights and recommendations from more than 100 global thought leaders in academia, science, government, and corporate sectors in the fields of AI, ethics, philosophy, and policy. It provides a key reference to AI/AS technologists as they prioritize value-driven, ethically aligned design in their work.

In addition, numerous standards projects inspired by this initiative have been launched. These include IEEE P7000: Model Process for Addressing Ethical Concerns During System Design, IEEE P7001: Transparency of Autonomous Systems, and IEEE P7002: Data Privacy Process.

An Ethical Lens

IEEE responds to key emerging technologies through its Future Directions initiatives. In addition to exploring a technology itself, each of these initiatives also considers ethics and policy issues where applicable. For example, IEEE’s Brain Initiative is anticipating the ethical aspects of advances in brain-machine interfaces, as well as facilitating collaboration to advance research, standardization, and development of technologies in neuroscience to help improve the human condition. Much of the work of our Robotics and Automation Society includes an examination of the ethical implications in this critical area of technical innovation.

The work being done by the IEEE Global Initiative, Future Directions, and other IEEE committees contributes to a broad effort being advanced at IEEE to foster an open, expansive, and inclusive conversation about ethics in technology, known as the IEEE TechEthics program. Launched last year, the program aims to coordinate and drive institute-wide activities in technology ethics and to showcase IEEE as a thought leader in conversations about the ethical and societal impacts of technology. 

IEEE TechEthics hosted a technical session in August at The Hague. “Conversations on Ethical and Social Implications of Artificial Intelligence” attracted an international audience from disciplines including technology, ethics, law, policy, and philosophy. The program has also begun to establish partnerships with other organizations. A series of virtual sessions and another international event are in the works.

We will continue to work to coordinate and create IEEE-wide synergies among ongoing and emerging initiatives. We want to address a widespread ethics landscape—from developing professional guidelines to assessing societal impacts to considering technological implementation. And we will continue to advocate for technologies that benefit humankind around the globe.

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