Ethics in Tech: A New Resource
New tools from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics aim to help technology companies embed ethical considerations into their workflow and promote the development of ethical products and services.
SANTA CLARA, Calif., Aug. 1, 2018— Amid growing debate about their ethical responsibilities, some technology companies are recognizing the urgent need for greater ethical foresight in the development and deployment of their products. Today, Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is releasing new materials to help such companies embed ethical considerations and troubleshooting into their development processes. The materials were funded by a grant from Omidyar Network, the Silicon Valley impact investment firm established in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam.
The tools are authored by internationally renowned tech ethicist and Santa Clara University professor Shannon Vallor (recipient of the 2015 World Technology Award for Ethics), in collaboration with Brian Green, director of the Technology Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Irina Raicu, who directs the center’s Internet Ethics program.
“Those who create products and services that become part of people’s everyday lives have long known that they must do better in considering the long- and short-term ethical implications of their work,” said Raicu. “What they might not have known is how to operationalize that awareness. This project aims to help them get started with a robust set of tools and suggestions for ways to effectively implement them.”
The suite of materials is called Ethics in Technology Practice. It includes a workshop teaching guide, overviews of technology ethics and relevant conceptual frameworks for ethical decision-making, case studies, an ethical toolkit for integrating consideration of ethics throughout product development, a sample workflow integration of the tools, and a list of best practices in technology design and engineering.
For example, the toolkit walks users through methods to conduct “ethical risk sweeping,” or identifying moral potholes ahead; “ethical pre-mortems and post-mortems” — identifying and preventing what are often domino-like systemic failures; case-based analysis; and means of identifying optimal ethical outcomes of a project.
“We liken ethical issues in technology to birds,” said Vallor. “They are varied and easier to spot by people working in groups, rather than alone. And once you are attuned to seeing them, you realize they are ubiquitous.”
“Our team is co-creating solutions to help tech maximize its positive impact and avoid unintended consequences,” said Paula Goldman, global lead of Omidyar Network’s newly-established Tech and Society Solutions Lab. “We funded this work as an experimental intervention with engineering talent in large tech firms because we feel one of the best places to impact future products lies directly in the hands of those writing lines of code."
The materials are available now under a Creative Commons license. Some of them underwent pilot testing in a workshop at X (formerly Google X), a part of Alphabet.
For more information on the Ethics in Technology Practice materials, please go to www.scu.edu/ethics-in-technology-practice.
Omidyar Network's Tech and Society Solutions Lab draws on Omidyar Network’s long-standing belief in the promise of technology to create opportunity and social good, as well as the concern about unintended consequences that can result from technological innovation. The team aims to help technologists prevent, mitigate, and correct societal downsides of technology—and maximize positive impact.