As Mark Zuckerberg finishes a two-day grilling in front of the US Senate, it is difficult not to feel as though we may be at an inflection point in our relationship with digital technology. Seemingly not a day goes by without the news being filled with coverage of data misuse, the vague worry about machines taking our jobs or intelligent algorithms analysing our every thought. We have yet to properly understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook user data, before we even think about broadening the discussion to the next wave of developments about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and big data.
Polls suggest the majority of the public does not trust the technology it relies on every day, and the point at which that lack of trust translates into debate about how technology really is going to impact on our day-to-day lives may be nearing. Opaque decisions are being made without any explicit ethical reference point, but with far-reaching human consequences, and our awareness of this is growing each day. People are getting to the point where they want to understand more about how the digital products and services they use on a day-to-day basis actually work, how they make money and how far they have been designed with the needs and values of their users in mind - and also what decisions are being taken effectively on their behalf by technology companies. In a world of network effects and digitisation, people have limited choices and there is currently limited competition, so how can we ensure that our digital lives are run with our best interests in mind?
These are big questions, and as the use of these new technologies has increased exponentially, the requirement for some clear thinking on how we can ensure ethical practices are established and followed has become ever more important for society. Our lives are seemingly dominated by immense technological development. That is why we need to ensure the principles on which these new opportunities lie are both sensible and ethical. Failure to do so means we will be perpetually, and unsatisfactorily cleaning up after the technology invariably produces unethical outcomes or, worse still, that we miss the opportunity to set an appropriate framework before technology takes over and embeds itself even further into everything we do.
It is for this reason that Labour MP Darren Jones and I are co-chairing a newly-established cross-party Parliamentary Commission on Technology Ethics. With the help of Oxford University’s Professor Luciano Floridi and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, the Commission will examine the complex questions associated with tech ethics. What we hope will come out at the end will be some concrete, tangible recommendations for how we can improve the ethical standing of emerging technologies, now and in the future.
Lee Rowley is the Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire