Can We Program Morality? 8 Mind-Bending Questions For Our Generation

Can We Program Morality?

8 Mind-Bending Questions For Our Generation

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As humanity and technology continue to become intertwined to a point of near unification, the Web Summit in Lisbon this past week explored the implications across a variety of industries. Held at the expansive MEO Stadium, the Dublin-born event attracted nearly 60,000 attendees from more than 170 countries in search of inspiration, connections and insights, all of which were available in great order. Among the event’s headliners were former Presidential candidate, Al Gore; former US Olympians Hope Solo and Caitlyn Jenner, Microsoft President, Brad Smith; and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who delivered a message from the International Space Station. Among the myriad topics covered by the 1,200 speakers, the question of technotopia and ethical tech were standouts.

“Technologists are playing one of the key roles of all,” said Gore in his impassioned keynote speech to a packed arena about climate control. “You- especially those of you who are building tech companies- can bring higher levels of efficiency and rationality. Your generation wants to be a part of productive enterprises that make good money, yes, but also move us in the right direction.”

Ethics were a big topic, yes, but also on the table at the three day event was the encroachment of technology on human life, and the jury’s still out on whether we’re headed in the right direction.  “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity,” surprise guest Stephen Hawking told revelers at the Web Summit’s Opening Night. Hawking’s comment belies the questions plaguing so many technologists today; is it fully possible to ensure that smart systems won’t develop a will of their own? Is the fierce quest of building automated intelligence going to benefit of humanity? Is it ethical? And ultimately, is tech working for us or are we working for tech?

“The things we build now will have a profound impact later on.”

– Ross Mason

The question of policing not only the vast digital ecosystem but also the old fashioned boardroom was also an event theme. According to a survey of investors at the Web Summit, 82 percent do not believe the tech industry has done enough to combat the proliferation of fake news. And another 60 percent went on to say that Silicon Valley is guilty of not successfully tackling sexism in the industry. Most experts agreed there is still so much more to do.

Here, 8 themes from this year’s Web Summit that stretch our thinking and make us question our brave new world.

1. In terms of tech, are we opening Pandora’s box?

“We all know we live in a digital world and that is not just a statement about the present, that’s a prediction about the future,” said Smith. “The future of healthcare is digital healthcare. The future of skills and education is digital, the future of jobs is digital. In the world of today, digital technology has become the cornerstone of of our lives and that raises a fundamental question for all of us: how do we protect the world?”

Clearly smarter systems can allow humanity to live cleaner, healthier lives. The new crop of life-enhancing technology includes everything from bionic limbs to smart cities. However, is there a dark side to being surrounded by smart machines that are potentially smarter than we are?

“You’ve never been more empowered by technology, you’ve never been more subject to surveillance and manipulation by technology,” said Quentin Hardy, Head of Editorial at Google Cloud during a talk about the influence tech companies have over news. “You’ve never had more information, you’ve never been more confused.”

Despite the fact that cybercrime costs the world $400 billion a year, one in three investors at the conference agreed that “internet companies are not a force for good and must be regulated.” The Russian Facebook hacking scandal, which came up over and over throughout the conference, is just one example of what can happen when a tech platform is open for the taking. Another that was brought up by Microsoft exec Brad Smith was the massive North Korea hacking event called “Wannacry,” which affected 200,00 computers in 150 countries. “In the history of humanity has there ever been a single attack that affected so many places at exactly the same time?,” he asked.

“Everyone is at risk of being influenced and we didn’t even know it was happening,” said Ross Mason, Founder of Mulesoft, who also covered the topic a debate called The Future of Technology: Will it Benefit Everyone? “Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking are saying the technology we’re creating is going to be very damning for us if we don’t put controls around it. It’s going to be impossible to retrofit after. When we open that Pandora’s Box, we don’t know what is going to happen.”

2. Or will tech make us better?

Speaking on the positive side of things was Intel CEO, Brian Krzanich. Intel, known for being “the brain” behind many of the tech innovations of our time, brought with him live demonstrations-including a full-size smart car, which-yes- he brought on stage, that reflected the company’s vision of where we are headed.

He shared his vision for a tech-forward future, which would use localized drones to help protect citizens against everything from shark attacks to kidnappings. “Imagine a world with AI to save lives anywhere in the world,” said Krzanich, adding that in August the tech firm acquired vision-based driving system, Mobileye, an Israeli technology company that develops specialized driver-assistance systems for collision prevention. “The idea here is to think about AI differently. You don’t need it backed to large data center, you can do real time ID and take action. That’s going to be where the future is.”

Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, also spoke on the topic, sharing that technology may actually be what saves humanity. Gelsinger, who helped create USB and WiFi, went on to say that the “four horsemen of apocalypse” affecting our modern world include health, environment, poverty and extremism. “In each case technology is applied to the benefit of everyone on the planet,” he said.

The unifying powers of social media were also up for discussion. Are they doing more good or bad? While the Russia hack and other cyber attacks were called out across the board, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman says social media also allows us to connect, and potentially find more peaceful ways to coexist.  “You see people misbehave on Reddit and anywhere else. but when you put people in the right context and strip motivations, people are a lot more generous, interesting and collaborative than you think,” says Huffman, who also announced his platform’s recent redesign. “Forced perspective brings empathy along with it.”

“We need a human-centric approach, thinking about the people who will ultimately benefit from the AI we stand in front of right now.”

– Simon Segars

3. Can empathy save us?

One of the event’s most unexpected speakers was Caitlyn Jenner, who delivered an emotional speech about acceptance. In her talk, Jenner revealed a softer side, one where she admitted that she hasn’t been portrayed very well in the media, but that she wants to use her platform for good.

“I have been accused by the trans community of White privilege,” said Jenner, facing the controversy head on. “I have a job and you know what they are right. My experience for the last 2.5 years has been different. I get that, but  I have a platform and maybe I can use that platform to make a difference.”

Avoiding direct mention of the Kardashian family, Jenner stayed on topic: explaining with facts and figures how the trans community is one of the most marginalized and its programs underfunded.  Many of its members end up in the sex trade or contemplate suicide, she shared. “Of the L, the G, the B and the T, the T is by far the most misunderstood. People don’t understand our issues.”

She went on to say that regardless of her athletic accolades had always felt like something was amiss, especially when giving motivational speeches in a body she didn’t feel was hers. “I would walk off the stage and felt like a fraud because I couldn’t tell them the whole story,” said Jenner, who underscored how important empathy is to helping solve prejudice in the workplace and everywhere else. “I am not a spokesperson for the trans community, I am a spokesperson for my story.”

9 November 2017; Caitlyn Jenner. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Web Summit via Sportsfile

4. Is it possible to program morality?

So, we can program intelligence, but what about programming morality? When it comes to innovations like self-driving cars, and humanoid robots, Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, said many are fitted with their own ability to “minimize loss,” which is creating a slew of questions about ethics. “There are new challenges, there are new risks involved,” said Segars, whose company was acquired in 2016 by SoftBank Group for $24.3 B Euro.

“Self-driving cars are going to have accidents. Self-driving cars are going to have to-in a split second- make a choice on how to minimize loss and it’s really interesting to consider what kind of moral set of values we program into the device to decide what choice is it going to make,” he said, mentioning the MIT Moral Machine  as it is currently fielding important research into tech ethics. “Some of it’s simple: a self-driving car whose brakes have failed and your choice is run over a bunch of guys who just robbed a bank or a bunch of old people crossing the road? That one is easy; but if it’s young people vs, old people, [then what?]”

“We need a very  human-centric approach to data and AI to ensure we deliver all the benefits,” said Segars. “Technology can help deal with humans which are often the weakest link.”

Photo by Seb Daly/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Speaking on morality from a much less high-tech point of view were Christine Herron of StartX and Kara Swisher of Recode, who discussed on a panel how it is possible to program morality into executives who have lived their whole lives without being questioned. “There are all kinds of pockets of this behavior going on,” said Dick Kramlich, of New Enterprise Associates, who also spoke about the matter. “It’s not just Silicon Valley, not just New York, and the more uniformity we can have on speaking out [the better].”

5. Is there such a thing as too much data?

“We are moving towards a world where everything is connected in ways we’ve never seen before,” said Segars, adding that his semiconductor IP company predicts there will be another trillion devices online and connected by 2035. “This is leading us to a word of data…not big data but massive data. Data will be the driver of this next wave of technology and our future will be very much dedicated by our ability to acquire, process and store, and gain insight from data that we just never had to think about in the past.”

Hope Solo. Photo courtesy of Diário de Notícias

“We see unfolding around us a new arms race; an arms race of invisible weapons.”

-Brad Smith

The discussion of smart cities intertwined with the discussion of data, and Segars said that more devices will lead to both. “Devices are going to go inside everywhere- they’re going to be in the concrete of the roads, they’re going to be in stores, hospitals, they’re going to be in the fields growing our crops,” added Segars. “This is going to lead to this world of data, this world of AI.”

And speaking of smart cities, Francesca Bria, From The City of Barcelona shared her opinion that in order for the infrastructure to benefit the many, we must begin to democratize data. “Data is a new public infrastructure and right now only a few companies that own all the data,” said Bria. “We must establish democracy around data because then we can go into fully digital public services that benefit many more people. If we collectively own the data and we can use it to improve quality of air, improve health care, [and more]. It can become a public common resource to achieve common challenges in a democratized way.”

But of course there are some blind spots. “It’s a really exciting future ahead with great benefits to society and to people,” added Segars, making the point that the dark side comes when we don’t know who is getting our data and for what purpose. “It’s going to be fundamentally limiting if people don’t trust technology. So one of the biggest issues we have to address in the future is trust.”

In terms of transparency, Segars warns “the more choices tech makes for us the spookier it seems. “As tech companies, we need to be transparent about it. We can’t have a bunch of terms and conditions written in micro-font that we hide behind. We have to be very upfront on what’s happening with data and how we’re using it.”

6. Is it too late to reverse climate change?

“There’s a collision underway right now between human civilization as we have come to organize it and the ecological system of this planet and there are many manifestations of it,” Gore said during the event’s final talk. “But the single most important part of this collision is the climate crisis and the reason it’s the most important is that the most vulnerable part of the earth’s ecosystem is the atmosphere. The sky can appear as if it goes on forever but you see from the pictures brought back from space, it’s very thin.”

Gore went on to say that while some may get overwhelmed and feel “all doom and gloom” by the damage we’ve done, technology allows us to fix past mistakes and plan for a sustainable future.

“It’s very exciting and I’m optimistic and I’m hopeful but we need to match all the new tools we have and all the exciting opportunities with enough political will to really get the job done. Everything depends on it.”

– Al Gore

9 November 2017; Al Gore, Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Gore underscored a feeling of stress regarding the unpredictable US president and how it’s affecting the world. He called on the young entrepreneurs in the room to recognize and help fight against the policies of the current president. He named Proterra and M-Kopa as two startups, which his fund Generation Investment Management invested in, who are fusing their passion and brilliance in technology with their goals of bettering the world.

“You need to make a distinction between President Donald J. Trump and the United States of America,” said Gore regarding the American citizens’ commitment to the Paris Agreement despite the decisions of our administration. “The United States of America is going to meet its commitments and we’re going to do our part in spite of Donald J. Trump.”

He closed his talk with an emotional plea that young minds continue working to tackle the problem of climate change through innovative tech solutions. “Everything is at stake,” said Gore. “Trust me, 10 to 20 years from now, you’re going to look back at 2017 and you’re going to say ‘boy it was a whole lot more serious than I realized it was and the opportunities were so much greater. that’s the moment we’re in. We need your help. We need your passionate involvement. We have all the tools we need to solve this crisis.”

7. What about sexism?

Olympian Hope Solo brought her A-game to the Web Summit. The world-famous soccer goalie, spoke loudly and clearly about her termination from the United States Soccer Federation and her new determination to fight back. “I dedicated my life to the game, I helped the US win gold medals, and I was still best goalkeeper in world when got fired,” said Solo. “In order to create change you can’t just talk about it you have to make sacrifices. I did and I am but we need more.”

Solo shared that when it comes to numbers, the women are actually bringing in more money that the men’s team, which makes the vast pay discrepancy even more shocking. “In 2015 the men’s national team had a loss of 2 million, and the same year the women’s team brought in close to 20 million for the federation,” she said. The women outperformed the men in ticket sales in 2016 as well.

“As long as Sunil Gulati [President of the Federation] is there… as long as the Federation continues to treat the women poorly I decide not to go back to them,” said Solo, who has now dedicated her life and fame to advocacy. “The handcuffs have been removed from my employer. They thought they could silence me but they’re probably regretting it.”

8. Does social media need regulation?

The question of ethics was one that reverberated through the convention. For, Quentin Hardy, who works in analytic journalism for Google Cloud, the question of whether social media platforms-specifically Facebook- should be considered media or tech companies, is of the utmost importance. “The question is how do these platforms evolve? Do they take responsibility or do they pass? To what extent do they begin to help users sort out high quality journalistic content from fraudulent news? [We’re in a world where] virality steers news judgement. This is uncharted territory.”

At one particularly heated discussion, Digital Director for the Trump campaign Brad Parscale, was questioned by Yahoo News Editor, Michael Isikoff on the controversy of Russia’s involvement and the role it played in the election. “You do know that there were Russian bots out there who were specifically speaking to your voters,” said Isikoff, who showed an example of a Russian troll account disguises itself as a Tennessee Republican group to a raucous crowd. “Trump campaign officials retweeted the messages from this fake Russian bot, including yourself.”

The crowd at the Web Summit

Responding that because there is no forced identification of IP addresses on social media, he had no idea that he was amplifying the words of Russian hackers. “Millions of people re-Tweet Tweets, you don’t have any idea who’s behind that account” said Parscale. “If there had been a Russian flag IP up there… would I re-Tweet it? No.”

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women’s Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

1 Comment
  1. Great article; well written and insightful. This article deals with a topic that should concert all of us and should be addressed by all governments: how to put some controls on technology and internet data. The current attitude, expressed or implied, by so many that technology and the internet are wonderful tools that make our world better and more accessible, although true in some instances, is also creating nightmares for literally million of people and that should be a huge red flag that something needs to be done now! From data breaches that put personal information up for grabs by identity thieves, to cars that drive themselves, to hacking social media sites with propaganda, we are giving up control of our lives to unknown, unseen entities that don’t know or care about us. We need to become more vocal and demand more transparency not only from these companies that digitize, store, and market our personal information, but from our government and what it is doing to protect us. Terrific job, Belisa. Keep us thinking about and discussing these issues.

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