Ethical challenges in the age of digitisation
Institutional Communication Service
5 April 2020
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently published a paper on the ethical challenges of digitisation written by Peter Seele, economist, philosopher and professor of business ethics at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society and Dirk Helbing, professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich.
In a number of sci-fi adventure novels, famous authors have taken the literary license to create dystopias in which the Earth is saved by opting for its "depopulation". Today the themes of sustainability, and of accessible resources for all are causing quite a buzz: if on the one hand people make the most of the resources in order to perpetrate their interests, on the other hand they are looking for solutions to better implement Agenda 2030. How to solve the dilemma in reality? As pointed out by the two authors, at the centre of this process are the doubts deriving from practical philosophy, that is, those situations for which there is no pleasant or correct solution, but all possible of actions create a problem. With digitisation, will algorithms take control of all cases where people are not able to express evaluations? And what would the consequences be for the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law? The reflection of the authors on how and whether machines should make moral decisions and which ethical principles should guide their behaviour begins with these basic questions.
It all starts from an exemplary dilemma, the so-called "trolley problem", a thought experiment in ethics that proposes a basic reflection "Which life is worth more in case of an unavoidable crash? Who has to die if not everyone can survive?" The question was taken up in the controversial "Moral Machine Experiment", which uses the example of automated driving. The crucial question posed by the authors is: how should or can automated systems decide when life and death are at stake?
Big Data play an important role, they are treated and analysed to know and predict behaviour. Although anonymous by law, the possibilities for analysis are shifting the boundaries of the concept of personal data. Take the field of medicine for example: patients are prioritised according to the storage of their data in digital medical records. In the process, numerous data protection principles are thus in danger of disappearing. Seele and Helbing stress the danger of "moral derailment": such technologies violate fundamental principles of law. But how, then, should autonomous intelligence be designed?
Science fiction enthusiasts are familiar with the basic principles of robot interaction with humans, already established by physicist Isaac Asimov in 1942. Going back to the "trolley problem", the authors add further rules to Asimov's: human beings and robots must do everything possible to minimise the arising of ethical dilemmas and, when this is not possible, the principle of equal opportunities should be applied. Open, democratic and constitutional society, human dignity, protection of privacy, the principle of equality, separation of powers: these are just some of the sacred principles that must also be safeguarded in the digital society of the future.
The full article inGerman is available at the following link: