Ethics for Engineers
The Guardian’s “Comments is free” section recently featured an article written by Abbas El-Zein, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Sydney titled “As engineers, we must consider the ethical implications of our work“. It neatly summarizes many aspects of the “Wetware Design & Behaviour” division of Applied Digital Ethics.
The most notable paragraphs:
One aspect of Edward Snowden’s revelations in the Guardian about the NSA’s surveillance activities has received less attention than it should. The algorithms that extract highly specific information from an otherwise impenetrable amount of data have been conceived and built by flesh and blood, engineers with highly sophisticated technical knowledge. Did they know the use to which their algorithms would be put? If not, should they have been mindful of the potential for misuse? Either way, should they be held partly responsible or were they just “doing their job”?
One could ask similar questions about engineers who build technologies of violence. Although in the west, we use the euphemism “defence” – and weapons often do serve this purpose – arms are just as likely to be used for furthering less-than-honourable goals, whether invading other countries, bombing rebellious populations or staging coups against democratically-elected governments. Engineers who see themselves as builders of the shelter and infrastructure for human needs also use their expertise in order to destroy and kill more efficiently.
When doctors or nurses use their knowledge of anatomy in order to torture or conduct medical experiments on helpless subjects, we are rightly outraged. Why doesn’t society seem to apply the same standards to engineers? […]
Our ethics have become mostly technical: how to design properly, how to not cut corners, how to serve our clients well. We work hard to prevent failure of the systems we build, but only in relation to what these systems are meant to do, rather than the way they might actually be utilised, or whether they should have been built at all. We are not amoral, far from it; it’s just that we have steered ourselves into a place where our morality has a smaller scope. […]
John Rogers, a materials engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, invented a brilliant epidermal electronic medical device and reported it in the journal Science. In a recent feature article about him in the New Yorker magazine, he was asked whether his invention is for the better or whether it will turn us into soulless robots. His answer was:
“[P]eople should think about it. But I’m just an engineer, basically.”
It will be a bright day for our profession when we start producing more engineers who, while just as smart as Rogers, have the will and the intellectual capacity to engage with bigger questions about the ethics, politics and social ramifications of their inventions.