News article by John O’Brien. Published in Educause Review.
New technologies, especially those relying on artificial intelligence or data analytics, are exciting but also present ethical challenges that deserve our attention and action. Higher education can and must lead the way.
Some news stories are hard to forget, like the one from a decade ago about a teenager who was texting while walking and fell into an open manhole on the street. Many headlines made fun of the scraped-up fifteen-year-old. But most of the news stories were focused on the people involved and thus didn’t see the bigger story about the place where humans and technology clash—or, in this case, crash.1
In 2020, I remember this story and see it as perhaps the perfect metaphor for the challenge of digital ethics. New technologies, many that depend on private data or emerging artificial intelligence (AI) applications, are being rolled out with enthusiastic abandon. These dazzling technologies capture our attention and inspire our imagination. Meanwhile, fascinated by these developments, we may soon see the ground drop out from under us. We need to find a way to pay attention to both the rapid technology innovations and the very real implications for the people who use them—or, as some would say, the people who are used by them.
I believe we are at a crucial point in the evolution of technology. We must come to grips with digital ethics, which I define simply as “doing the right thing at the intersection of technology innovation and accepted social values.” This is a straightforward-enough definition; however, given the speed of technology change and the relativity of social values, even a simple definition may be trickier than it seems. For example, at the point where they clash, the desire for the latest data-powered apps and the desire for fiercely protected privacy reveal significant ethical fault lines. Which desire prevails? And while we contemplate this question, the development of new apps continues.
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