The advent of self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, and autonomous weapons has brought renewed attention to the ethical and societal implications of new technologies. The mainstream media is filled with stories on these technologies, creating an increased awareness—and level of concern—among the general public.
These concerns present IEEE with an ideal opportunity to lead the discussion about technology and ethics. That’s why the IEEE TechEthics program was launched last year. Its goal is to showcase IEEE’s role as a thought leader when it comes to the ethical and societal implications of technology and, in the process, establish IEEE as a trusted resource for industry, policymakers, academics, the broader technology community, and the general public.
The program’s objectives include educating engineers and other key stakeholders by developing, curating, and disseminating examples of ethics conversations through videos, articles, and other materials. In addition, IEEE TechEthics will partner with organizations to coordinate activities and see that all ethical viewpoints—including cultural, philosophical, and regional differences—are covered.
Although much of the current IEEE TechEthics activity is focused on artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, over time the program also will concern itself with other technology areas such as brain-machine interfaces, human-augmentation technology, health care, and the future of work. It also will concentrate on ethics throughout the product development cycle, dealing with professional behavior and design considerations, and the impact of technological advances on end users.
The overall technology-related ethics landscape for IEEE covers three key areas: professional guidelines that help define intended behavior by professionals in the field, the impact of (and response to) professional behaviors in the context of those codes of ethics, and the ethical/societal impacts of the technologies themselves. These are interdependent categories, with each influencing the others.
IEEE is not new to providing coverage across this landscape. A code of ethics has been around in one form or another for more than 100 years. The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice is a joint effort between the IEEE Computer Society and the Association for Computing Machinery. Other societies including IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology and IEEE Robotics and Automation currently address aspects of ethics in their conference programs and publications. By its very nature, the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology has been covering the topic since its inception more than 45 years ago. In addition, the IEEE Board of Directors recently established the ad hoc committee on IEEE ethics programs to coordinate and create synergies across the organization.
Last year the IEEE TechEthics program sponsored several activities including a meeting of AI associations to discuss opportunities for collaboration; an event on ethical considerations with respect to machine learning and artificial intelligence at The Hague; and the IEEE AI and Ethics Summit, held in Brussels and hosted by the IEEE European Public Policy Initiative.
In development are a series of monthly virtual sessions and a flagship annual conference scheduled to take place in October, and being sponsored in part by the IEEE Foundation. A new IEEE.tv channel is now dedicated to TechEthics content, and a community has been established to keep IEEE members and other interested parties up to date on ethics activities.
Related to the TechEthics program’s objectives is the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems, led by the IEEE Standards Association. The initiative launched launched “Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Wellbeing with Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems” last December. Several standards proposals are being developed as a result of the IEEE Global Initiative’s work.
Another project is the IEEE Technical Activities Board’s ad hoc committee on design for ethics. Among other things, the committee is focused on engaging members of societies and technical councils in ethical considerations involving their work.
As an organization-wide umbrella program, IEEE TechEthics is intended to establish a common and consistent message and brand in support of IEEE’s commitment to exploring the ethical and societal implications of technology. By coalescing the various contributions to IEEE’s technology ethics activities, IEEE can can expand on its strong voice in this global conversation.
IEEE Senior Member Greg Adamson chairs the IEEE ad hoc committee on IEEE ethics programs. Mark A. Vasquez is a strategic program senior manager for IEEE who oversees the TechEthics program.
This article is part of our May 2017 special issue on ethics in engineering.