The BCS Insights annual conference hits its third birthday with a planet-wide view of tech - how it can help the climate change emergency; how it hinders; the role of professionalism, what we should expect from the tech giants… and what we can do, writes Brian Runciman MBCS.

There is quite some history in IT of stating and restating the problems we face - whether that be AI bias, opaque algorithms, or diversity in the workforce. Sometimes we even get distracted from the problems by things that are intended as thought experiments... think the endless trolley problem discussions around self-driving cars.

We risk falling into a trap highlighted by the late great Douglas Adams, in a scene from his most famous work:

FORD: ‘We just have to sidle up to the problem sideways when it’s not looking and pounce!’
ARTHUR: ‘Well?’
FORD: ‘Er, I just knocked the bottle of wine over.’
ARTHUR: ‘Have you got an answer?’
FORD: ‘No, but I’ve got a different name for the problem.’
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Christmas Special, first broadcast 24 December 1978.

Redefining problems, renaming them, is not enough. BCS’ mission to make IT good for society demands practical solutions. And this is the idea behind BCS Insights. Of course, a one-day conference cannot provide solutions - but the intent is for BCS to be a convenor of different voices and ideas - and a convenor of organisations that can work together to achieve change.

Our planet

‘The profit of the land is for all: the king himself is served by the field.’
Ecclesiastes Chapter 5 Verse 9 (KJV)

Technology can be a huge help in combatting climate change. It is also a source of some of the problems. When there are huge organisations that make some people fabulously wealthy and also control news, information and even human discourse, we need to ask what hits we should allow the environment to take. And, as Ecclesiastes says so elegantly, the super-rich are in the same situation as all of us - we all depend on the natural resources of Earth.

So, to take a few examples, what about the massive power consumption in AI models and blockchain applications? What of the environmental toll from the extraction of rare earth elements for capacitive screens and processors? Is there a problem with the ‘upgrade at all costs’ mentality and the constant search for software and hardware novelty?

Our profession

‘The purpose of system is what it does.’
Stafford Beer

This more than 20-year-old dictum is still a useful thinking tool when discussing what people’s intentions were when designing a system. As Beer said, we need to look beyond attributions based on ‘prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.’ We need to take out political viewpoints and unflinchingly look at what something actually does - the descriptive view.

So, what should we expect from our tech giants? What do societally beneficial tech giants look like? How can we get there? And when so many, if not all, organisations are essentially tech organisations, we need to look a little more closely at the people working in them: What is the role of an IT professional? Rather than just being empowered to say no on ethically questionable requests, how can they be empowered to proffer good alternatives? What does ethical innovation mean?

Our people

‘If it’s not diverse, it’s not ethical.’’
Dame Wendy Hall, past President, BCS

The operation of IT in society needs to consider people. This is often said, and yet the digital divide is a very real and ongoing phenomenon.

How do we include the digitally marginalised; promote diverse teams; combat coercive control? How should we educate children, and by extension society in general, about computers and with computers?

Our principles

‘The computer is the most astonishingly powerful tool that man has ever created; the task before us is not to argue whether it will redeem us or destroy us, but to go out and take action to ensure that it is put to good use...’
Baron Robens of Woldingham, the 1969 Dudley Hooper Memorial Lecture, April 1969.

Most would acknowledge today that Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘move fast and break things’ is not the way forward. What do we need to create roadmap for future good in tech and, maybe more apposite, who do we need to get involved to make it work? How do we get them involved?

The foregoing is a taste of some of the issues we will explore in Insights 2021.

We look forward to seeing you there.