Humanoid Robots, Autonomous Fighter Drones, and Computers Than Can Code: What’s Next?

Even if the technology is unrealized, its effects will be very real. This is your guide to understanding what tech-ethics is with info for undergraduates looking to study in this intersection.

“We’re setting it such that it is at a mechanical level, at a physical level you can run away from it and and most likely overpower it so hopefully that doesn’t ever happen, but um you never know.” — Elon Musk

Last week, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s plans for building a humanoid robot. Built with Tesla’s technology, Musk calls his creation “a Tesla on legs.” Even though it is meant to help assist humans and remove the monotony of basic labor, “you never know.”

What is Tech Ethics and Why You Should Care

Putting tech and ethics together is not like putting a round peg into a square-shaped hole.

As technology pervades more and more facets of our life, the spheres of technology and society are permanently intertwined. Technology isn’t just data centers and space ships, it’s Amazon Alexa, NEST, and Ring (the latter being far more tangible). These are just technologies we interact with, but technology is also used in high-stakes situations: COMPAS (used to determine sentencing for “criminals”), autonomous fighter drones, and facial recognition software (used to monitor the public).

Ultimately, we are trying to give machines the ability to do human tasks: the ability to predict, fight, see. But this is where the problem arises; humans are more complex, and the values and intuition we have cannot be translated to machines (at the moment).

And it’s not just emerging technologies, existing technology has made its crater-shaped impact as well. Take data mining by social media companies, violating user privacy, etc.

Technology has a significant impact on society and poses several risks. And this is where ethics comes in: we need to figure out what happens when algorithms are biased and produce unfair sentences or decide whether machines should have the ability to kill since they also lack human instinct; we need to decide how social media companies handle our data or whether police departments should employ facial recognition technology to catch criminals, even if it means losing our privacy.

It may be exciting to invent trailblazing technology, but not considering its societal implications from the very beginning, is a problem.

Oftentimes, thinking about the ethics of technology comes as an afterthought: a way to deal with the fallout. But it is a necessary step of the development process. And thinking about the ethics of technology is incumbent on the people who make technology and those who use it since it impacts all of us. It is something, engineers, scientists, policy-makers, and the general public have to work towards.

Simply put, tech-ethics is applying ethical principles to technology: thinking about its impact in a broader, social context.

Tech and Ethics may come from different backgrounds and disciplines, but their combination allows us to truly analyze the impact tech has.

Now that we’ve defined tech ethics, let's look at some ways you can get involved.

Getting Involved

For College Students

For the past few weeks, I’ve combed the internet for international institutions that support tech-ethics programs. These programs study the intersection of technology and ethics and are open to undergraduates in some format (either through internships, degrees, research opportunities, etc.). I’ve also found non-profits that offer undergraduates a way to get involved and professors that research this field that you may like to work with.

The nascent tech-ethics field is still expanding, but a critical component missing from this network is undergraduates. Integrating an ethics framework into STEM teaching as early as possible ensures that the next generation of STEM workers understands the value of responsible innovation; institutions that celebrate and prioritize this way of thinking should be highlighted.

I’ve also included some extra information on each of the programs (size, institution ranking, global research reputation, etc.) for you to decide which program is best for you. There is no one best program since each has a slightly different area of focus: the best one depends on what you are most interested in.

You can use this link for more information on the criteria I used to include organizations and the different ranking systems.

Full disclosure: The list I’ve compiled is by no means complete. If you are aware of other relevant programs, feel free to comment them and I will add them to the list.

As I was compiling this list, I realized the truly diverse nature of this field. Some institutions took tech-ethics issues from a scientific standpoint, others from a philosophical standpoint, and a few from a policy standpoint. Professors working at this intersection are engineers, sociologists, and lawyers. Some organizations conducted research to advocate for certain policy changes, others worked towards educating the public.

Ultimately, this means that you can tackle the ethical implications of tech from different angles. You can pursue different interests while working towards tech’s positive impact.

The Future of Tech-Ethics

In my limited experience, the tech-ethics space needs input from everyone tech impacts: academic, and Jane Doe alike. While those opportunities don’t yet exist at the moment, we can always create our own.

Thinking about the ethics of technology means understanding the impact of technology on society, on our daily lives. And technology impacts different people in different ways.

Hopefully, you found some value from the spreadsheet attached above. But even if you didn't, hopefully, you learned something new. Hopefully, you realized the importance of tech ethics and are willing to take the next step.

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Interested in the intersection between tech and ethics.

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