You are an Ethical Engineer. Are Your Products?
All of us are taught ethics through moral stories in our childhood. Many professions such as engineering, medicine, and law teach a “code of ethics,” and many businesses have a formal code of ethics in their collection of policies. While these ethical standards are applied largely to an individual’s behavior in interacting with peers or customers, they rarely push individuals to reflect on the considerations applied to designing or certifying a product. Falsifying product performance, emission reports, or breaching data security to access private information are all well-known examples of an engineering organization’s actions having directly harmed people as individuals or society as a whole. As “smart” gadgets along with their corresponding infrastructure continue to develop, one has to worry about the conscious or unconscious misuse and harm this may cause.
In the same way that we expect all individuals to operate with a moral code, we must also work to make engineering professionals and technologists aware of the ethical implications of their decisions for product design. IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, recently undertook the enormous task of addressing this gap in personal ethics versus designing ethically-aligned products. To begin with, we must agree on several definitions to enable the dialog in this domain, establish a framework for ethical considerations, and provide guidelines to technology developers and product designers who may be experts at the engineering tasks, but unaware of the ethical dilemmas created by some of their well-intentioned inventions and innovations.
Current effort under IEEE is focused on ethically-aligned design for artificial intelligence applications and automated systems. Three working groups have been formed under the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA). Dr. Konstantinos Karachalios, Greg Adamson, and John Havens provide us with some early insight into these efforts. Interestingly, some of the guiding principles are based on the active research of Professor Sarah Spiekermann, chair of the Institute for Management Information Systems at Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her “values-based system design” approach can be applied to many disciplines beyond information technology.
Let us not expect we will achieve nirvana if all product designers are ethically aligned. After all, successful products have to be “psychologically catchy” for customers to buy and use them–this is true for individual consumers and businesses. Customer education about ethical considerations in product design will be equally important. As a consumer, how does a product lead you to make ethical use of it or prevents you from making unethical use? Would you pay extra for such products? How much? Why? These and other questions like these are likely to come up as we dive into exploring ethically-aligned designs.
I am sure we will hear more on these topics in years to come. Until then, look for gaps in ethics as you design products or develop new technologies. You are bound to find use cases that are influenced differently based on your local environment.
Editor-in-Chief, SEC eZine
Member, IEEE-SA Board of Governors
Yatin Trivedi, Editor-in-Chief, is a member of the IEEE Standards Association Board of Governors (BoG) and Standards Education Committee (SEC), and serves as vice-chair for Design Automation Standards Committee (DASC) under Computer Society. Since 2012 Yatin has served as the Standards Board representative to IEEE Education Activities Board (EAB). He also serves Chairman on the Board of Directors of the IEEE-ISTO.
Yatin currently serves as Associate Vice President for hardware services at Aricent Inc. Prior to his current assignment, Yatin served as Director of Strategic Marketing at Synopsys where he was responsible for corporate-wide technical standards strategy. In 1992, Yatin co-founded Seva Technologies as one of the early Design Services companies in Silicon Valley. He co-authored the first book on Verilog HDL in 1990 and was the Editor of IEEE Std 1364-1995™ and IEEE Std 1364-2001™. He also started, managed and taught courses in VLSI Design Engineering curriculum at UC Santa Cruz extension (1990-2001). Yatin started his career at AMD and also worked at Sun Microsystems.
Yatin received his B.E. (Hons) EEE from BITS, Pilani and M.S. Computer Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE and a member of IEEE-HKN Honor Society.