Entrepreneurs need to engage in the ethics of tech

It’s easy to feel apocalyptic during the dark, icy days at the end of the year. And from the evidence of this winter’s cultural releases, technology is our favourite Yuletide 2014 bogeyman.

Stephen Hawking’s recent warnings to the BBC that “artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race” – an echo of Elon Musk’s declaration that AI is our “biggest existential threat” at the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium in October – could not have come at a better time for the producers of Ex Machina.

Written and directed by career dystopian Alex Garland and due to be released at the end of January next year, the film follows a young coder who is selected to be the human element in an AI Turing test by his enigmatic and reclusive CEO.

The press screening I attended last Monday is under strict embargo but I don’t think it is be a spoiler to say that Ex Machina isn’t going to get many viewers feeling warm and fuzzy about the future of tech any time soon.

Art attack

But it seems we’re just as worried about tech sapping human intelligence as manufacturing the computing kind. I recently caught a preview of Golem at the Young Vic, in which the acclaimed theatre group 1927 uses a combination of animation, live theatre and music to explore what happens to an anarchic family when they adopt an animated clay figure called a golem.

As the golem learns to read their wishes and upgrades to become ever smaller, faster and more ‘helpful’, the show develops into a powerful satire against our increasingly algorithm-led, homogenised and commercially manipulated lives.

Then there’s the release of the new novel from the master of speculative fiction, William Gibson. Coiner of the term cyberspace and inspiration for the Matrix movies, Gibson has been dubbed the noir prophet of cyberpunk due to the eerie accuracy of his near future predictions, and his bleak vision of our world in The Peripheral is terrifyingly credible.

With 80% of the population wiped out in an environmental cataclysm, the London of the novel is rebuilt with pseudo-organic smart buildings, crawling with gamer-operated drones, and ruled by squillionnaire Russian oligarchs who roam the planet in the perfected robotic bodies of ‘peripherals’, controlled remotely by their brains. Tech has saved us where nature failed, but it has also enabled a society of frictionless, anonymous violence, 3D printed everything, and medieval levels of economic and cultural inequality.

The Peripheral should be on the Christmas list of anyone who works in tech (or indeed anyone at all), and once you’ve read it – with drones zipping  through the headlines, 3D printed vertebrae already successfully implanted into two patients and wireless brain-controlled prosthetics not far away – it is hard not to see shades of Gibson’s future lurking in every new startup’s breathlessly quixotic press release.

Even if you’re a resolute coach potato, you might have caught last Tuesday’s Black Mirror: White Christmas, the seasonal special edition of Charlie Brooker’s brilliant tech horror TV series Black Mirror, replete with optical wearables that can ‘block’ friends in real life and solipsistic virtual PAs based on their owners’ own consciousnesses.

“I guess technology is a global thing,” Brooker has said of the show’s super-successful recent launch on US Netflix. “Wherever you go, people have had their lives slightly altered by it in the same way. I guess we’re fortunate in that we’ve tapped into a global sweet spot of enchantment and anxiety.”

Baby steps

None of this is surprising, of course. Our relationship with technology has become the defining narrative of our time, and frankly, any current art that doesn’t explore either the tensions in our digital lives or the tensions in the Middle East feels rather redundant.

What worries me is that these sort of bold, provocative hypotheses about the deeply conflicting impact of tech on society are rarely discussed by the people creating that technology.

Sure, Google established an AI ethics board in January this year following a spate of robotics acquisitions including UK-based lab DeepMind, but its aims, processes and opinions remain opaque.

And although it was reassuring to hear, on the heels of Hawking’s pronouncement, that a team of researchers from universities in Sheffield, Liverpool and Bristol are helming a £1.4 million project to “develop formal verification techniques for tackling questions of safety, ethics, legality and reliability across a range of autonomous systems” – i.e., keep tabs on the robots – the tech ethics debate needs to move beyond secretive proprietary thinktanks, artists and academic labs.

Cross-disciplinary thinking

Our anxieties and expectations of technology need to be given a regular and rigorous airing amongst the young guns of Silicon Valley, San Francisco and, yes, Shoreditch. Entrepreneurs should be expected to engage in conversations about the social implications of their products and services; issues such as cyber-bullying, privacy, environmental impact and sustainability, accessibility for those outside the wealthy western middle classes, and implications for mental and social health should be automatically laid on the table alongside their software demo or device.

These are complex, thorny issues which any marketer worth their salt will endeavour to avoid, but the people developing our next generation of technologies should be leading, rather than avoiding, the debate. And their self-interest needs to be balanced with a cross-section of perspectives, both creative and commercial.

The ethics board we really need would see young entrepreneurs arguing the implications of drones, robots and social media with professional imagineers such as Gibson, Garland and Brooker, alongside executives from social platforms and tech companies as well as political advisors, psychologists, sociologists and scientists.

The concept of cross-disciplinary thinking and working is a contemporary cliche, but it has never been more urgently required – or poorly demonstrated – when it comes to the future of technology.

Only by combining the imaginative boldness of artists, the human insight of ologists and the commercial power of tech companies will we reach the required balance of perspective and perspicuity needed to guide this immeasurably influential industry.