We are surrounded by digital applications – in our private lives, at work, and in social contexts. But what are the consequences of these developments? And how can we use digitization to our advantage and not to our disadvantage?
Starting at the end of the year, we will shed light on this topic in a blog about digital ethics as part of our think tank. Expert and author of the blog: Our colleague and Senior Transformation Consultant, Carsten Gundlach. He has been working intensively on sustainability and digital ethics over the past two years, most recently in the context of his certification in the context of the ”Digital Leadership & Ethics Program”. To get an insight into the upcoming journey on the blog, we asked Carsten six questions about digital ethics.
Artificial Intelligence - curse or blessing?
It depends! AI can be an absolute blessing if it has the good in mind. Regarding medicine, for example, AI can detect cancer much better than humans can, just by analyzing images. AI can also support humans in other areas. Just recently, I came across an example – it was about the condition of our forests. Using satellite images combined with help from AI, it’s easier to assess the forests’ current conditions and to get an overview of how the forest is actually doing. In these application areas, AI can be an absolute blessing. On the other hand, however, it can also be a curse: AI is already involved in social media, for example: What gets posted in my streams? What do I see? What’s my concrete “bubble”? To what extent am I manipulated? It’s also about the fact that the more time I spend on social media, the better the operator, service provider and the companies get to know me, my preferences, and so on. Another interesting topic is AI and autonomous robots that can be used in entirely different situations. And that’s not so far-fetched when you look at the conflicts around the world: Drones, robots on the ground – in quite a lot of application areas, these developments might be a bit scary when you imagine dystopian scenarios. When talking about risks: There is the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (CSER) in Cambridge. The researchers are investigating which dangers could extinguish humanity. They indeed see AI as a risk. Furthermore, they stress the importance that AI gets a framework so it does not develop a momentum on its own and cause humanity’s extinction. And if renowned scientists communicate this danger, I think it is quite an important topic. So summarized: Curse or blessing depends on the context of use and the possible consequences!
Super exciting! AI is only one part of the digital ethics blog, though. There's a lot more to this topic, it's a widespread area, therefore the question: Why should we all care about digital ethics?
For the very reasons, why AI can be a worrisome topic: The impact analysis of digitization and its effects on society, economy, etc. Digital ethics can help identifying such impacts early and develop appropriate actions or options. We can even go one step further: I’m talking about a value-based society, like in Western Europe. Such approaches can be incorporated right away in the design of business models and innovations. Right at the beginning, I could have a competitive advantage compared to other cultural areas that do not have these approaches. I am talking about the following questions:
How about privacy protection? Are my actions and decisions transparent? Am I informing the users? So, you really must think about these aspects. And the approaches already exist. Some companies even practice it, for example, through ethics boards or ethics by design. You should consider these approaches from the very beginning in the innovation process. Digital ethics can also help find solutions to quandaries, develop guidance, and look at things from different perspectives.
How did you gain a foothold in this topic? Why are you involved in digital ethics at all?
I wouldn’t say by chance, but maybe by chance, indeed. I would never have defined the term digital ethics in this way. I have been thinking about the development of social media in our everyday lives for quite a while. This topic mattered to me for a long time and also shocked me – how dependent we already are on digital applications. I became acquainted with the concrete term of digital ethics during my education and certification. In that regard, I also upgraded my education concerning sustainability in digital transformation. The study program I absolved is called “Digital Leadership & Ethics Program”. Sustainability and digital ethics were a focus in the courses, and at this time, I realized: “Okay, there’s already a subject area that deals with these issues I’m interested in!” Digital ethics is a topic that is exciting to think about, more than society is aware of. In particular, the implications are immense: Does my two year old child get an iPad to be engaged, or not? Is that ethically justifiable? The scope can be stretched far and wide. Also in corporate context: Is it ethical to keep users in the dark, or do I ensure transparency? During my certification, this whole topic has increasingly mesmerized me!
And in the blog, you also want to mesmerize the readership! Where does the journey take you and the readers in the articles about digital ethics?
First of all, I want to inform and publicize the topic and create awareness. Often people aren’t really aware of digital ethics, but the deeper you go into it, and the more you talk about it, the more positive feedback comes back. I want to create awareness, show the challenges and issues, show the opportunities to proactively create added value. So again, regarding the topic of value orientation. At this point, we as western society could acquire a competitive advantage in comparison to others. I want to show and convey the following: Initially, what does digital ethics mean in general? Then to dive specifically into concrete topics to show the diversity of the topic, but not to go into exhausting depth. Here, the distinction from classical ethics and classical philosophy can be very demanding. The focus should be on the practical aspects.
You've already mentioned the topic of values: To what extent do social ideals and beliefs influence the development of digital technologies?
Very much. Every algorithm is written and programmed by a human being. These human beings are influenced by their culture and its values and unconsciously let these influences flow into the programming. That’s human – an example: When you write a text, you try to be objective, but subjectively, your own ideas flow into it. Coming back to algorithms, we have a problem at this point: Algorithms are often developed by young, white men. As a result, some AI already has had proven racist tendencies. So, values play an important role here. Depending on the culture, values can have an impact on algorithms.
The discussion of ethics also includes the question of happiness. Can digitization make us happy?
That’s a difficult question and also an exciting one. I read something about this only recently and have a split opinion about it. Digitization can, I think, already contribute to happiness. In the sense of “How can it positively support the individual and also the society?” For example, we are easily connected with friends and other people around the globe and in our work lives we get to know entirely new ways and possibilities of working together. But digitization can also contribute to the exact opposite. Be it Instagram and unrealistic beauty ideals that are then projected into real life. Be it hate postings. These dynamics have existed in other media and on other platforms before, but now the whole problem is shifting into the digital world. The increased connectivity speeds up many processes and makes them escalate more easily. But this is just another tiny example from of the world of media and communication technology of how digitization can contribute to “unhappiness”. At this point, it gets philosophical for me, like before when it came to AI. How am I using digitalization? Am I happier – or unhappier – as a result of what it offers? Overall, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, both in my private life and at work, so I see digitization and the opportunities it offers in a very positive light.