Dr. Denise Oram MBCS, Senior Lecturer at Glyndwr University, examines how business must balance innovation in IT with both recycling and the ethical demands of society.

Technology that relies on an infrastructure of electronics and computation for its production and operation is continually on the increase and consequently we are presented with a dilemma: how to move forward when dealing with both continuing innovation and the ethical issues facing IT today.

The problem of sustainability is exacerbated by the proliferation of digital technologies. The rate of technological progress means that this year’s models are obsolete by next year. Fashion is driven by technological advance and the issue of sustainability is not always considered in a market where the new and genuinely improved model can be offered every month by profit-driven manufacturers.

There are major issues concerning the handling, recycling and disposal of obsolete products and this is on the increase year after year. Health hazards from exposure to e-waste are causing major problems where chemicals get into and pollute the environment. Lead, mercury and cadmium are highly potent neurotoxins, and these are present in e-waste. Rather than continue as we are, strategies need to be established in order to deal with the essential issues of how to handle waste safely.

There is a need to highlight social issues, environmental impacts, power savings, energy efficiency and hazardous substances and pollutants. Consideration should be given to upgrades and new developments that instigate proportionate waste and know how to deal with it – to consider the life cycle and beyond.

With regard to the powering of the digital economy, energy demand is growing significantly with respect to the devices being used. Research has shown that currently, there is a decrease in end user devices but an increase in data centre usage. What effect will this have in the future?

How can we ensure that ethical and sustainable development takes place?

There have been significant improvements made for society in many areas, for example the increasing autonomy in the use of technology for individuals, as well as the development of data science, a new term developed with the increase in the use of ‘big data’. Technologies that have improved medical research, providing invaluable data analytics in order to understand patterns, trends and behaviour in many domains and consequently resulting in improving the quality of people’s lives in many respects. New technologies are mainly contributing to the quality of our lives, but it is the number of negative effects and the problems that they bring with them that should be acknowledged and addressed with a view to making any necessary changes in future practices.

With the volumes of data being generated by these new services, there will be vast amounts of data distributed over networks with no deep understanding of any possible detrimental outcomes; there will undoubtedly be new problems of ownership, sustainability, security and control whereby decisions will be made by proxy. We have already experienced the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where the personal data of 50 million Facebook profiles were collected without any prior consent and used for political advertising purposes. There may be many other cases to follow.

Making growth ecologically sustainable

To ensure that ethical and sustainable development takes place, it is essential to maintain dialogue between the innovators, creators and stakeholders. The ethical challenges and their impact on society are considerations that need to be an integral aspect of the design process, where an increase in communication and collaboration is needed between designers of technology, users, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and health experts regarding the adoption of these technologies.

Societal needs and demands should be fulfilled whilst working within a framework for sustainable development. It is crucial to understand the human, social and ethical dimensions; sustainability needs to be included as part of the creative and developmental process. It is essential to raise awareness of sustainability and the issues that may affect ethical reasoning and impact on the decision-making process with regard to these technologies. The only foreseeable rational route is for professionals to address practical ethics within their own field of work to avoid these issues and problems with innovation and development.

Are the relevant questions being asked in the right environments in order to make this distinction between the opportunities and the threats, and who is making the decisions?

New developments governance and enforcements

This progression of technological development over the span of twenty years or so indicates a new industrial revolution having a major impact on every industry and society. It shows the progression to real time systems being accessible anywhere, and with the IoT physical and digital convergence leading to man-machine collaboration.

With the developments in artificial intelligence (AI), there are increasing ethical considerations to be acknowledged. The increase in AI systems will undoubtedly bring many useful innovations and improvements to our lives – however, systems engineers must heed warnings from the past and look to social responsibility and sustainability in the decision-making for future developments.

Are there codes of conduct, codes of practice and codes of ethics to address all the specific kinds of situations that may arise with the development of digital technologies? Are they adequately acknowledged, understood and enforced? Responsibility must be taken by developers for the technology they produce; to consider the ethical considerations that have to be acknowledged and the possible effects and unintended outcomes that might occur on people and society.

A new era of accountability

There is also the question of where the responsibility for brokering agreement on sustainability issues lies. A consensus can only be reached when all professionals participate in negotiations and accept their outcomes.

The preamble to the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which has just been revised states: ‘The Code is not an algorithm for solving ethical problems, rather it is intended to serve as a basis for ethical decision-making in the conduct of professional work… The entire profession benefits when the ethical decision-making process is transparent to all stakeholders.’

Irreversible problems and situations are becoming greater challenges, resulting in negative outcomes in some cases. Enforced governance of policies, procedures and guidelines need to be introduced to provide instant and effective awareness of these issues to be discussed in the requirements for any new developments in the field. We need to be more conscious of litigation with regards to the global market and that socially responsible computing incorporates issues of accountability, liability, integrity, and trust, as well as the ability to be able to measure and manage an infrastructure to support energy efficiency.

What appears to be overlooked and essential, is the lack of action that is needed to take forward new policies in providing relevant and up-to-date governance and enforced standards.

Facing our future challenges

Teaching, working, living and the environment have experienced many transformations making many improvements and changes to a world where everything has become a network of networks. This rapid advance in technology will bring many more complex issues and indeed the essential requirement for ethical considerations of which there will be many arising especially with human machine symbiosis.

For the legacy of future generations, sustainable growth paradigms need to be developed. Innovation in technological developments needs to continue, but with emphasis on considering future consequences and to change the culture of ‘this does not concern us’. It is essential to address issues of effective recycling and reusability of products.

The current situation is that it is an increasingly technologically experimental age with many new complex digital technologies influencing society. Technology tends to be driven by finance and trend rather than ‘improving the quality of our lives’ as the primary goal.

It is important to consider the motivation behind technological development, balancing benefits versus cost, and thinking beyond the present time and into the future – to what the possible ultimate outcomes will be as a result of this advancing technology.

The good life may not be the good life envisaged if the planet is impoverished by demands.

Reference

ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. 2018 “Revision”. Available at: https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics.