Programmers need ethics when designing the technologies that influence people’s lives

Cherri M. Pancake at The Conversation: “Computing professionals are on the front lines of almost every aspect of the modern world. They’re involved in the response when hackers steal the personal information of hundreds of thousands of people from a large corporation. Their work can protect – or jeopardize – critical infrastructure like electrical grids and transportation lines. And the algorithms they write may determine who gets a job, who is approved for a bank loan or who gets released on bail.

Technological professionals are the first, and last, lines of defense against the misuse of technology. Nobody else understands the systems as well, and nobody else is in a position to protect specific data elements or ensure the connections between one component and another are appropriate, safe and reliable. As the role of computing continues its decades-long expansion in society, computer scientists are central to what happens next.

That’s why the world’s largest organization of computer scientists and engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery, of which I am president, has issued a new code of ethics for computing professionals. And it’s why ACM is taking other steps to help technologists engage with ethical questions….

ACM’s new ethics code has several important differences from the 1992 version. One has to do with unintended consequences. In the 1970s and 1980s, technologists built software or systems whose effects were limited to specific locations or circumstances. But over the past two decades, it has become clear that as technologies evolve, they can be applied in contexts very different from the original intent.

For example, computer vision research has led to ways of creating 3D models of objects – and people – based on 2D images, but it was never intended to be used in conjunction with machine learning in surveillance or drone applications. The old ethics code asked software developers to be sure a program would actually do what they said it would. The new version also exhorts developers to explicitly evaluate their work to identify potentially harmful side effects or potential for misuse.

Another example has to do with human interaction. In 1992, most software was being developed by trained programmers to run operating systems, databases and other basic computing functions. Today, many applications rely on user interfaces to interact directly with a potentially vast number of people. The updated code of ethics includes more detailed considerations about the needs and sensitivities of very diverse potential users – including discussing discrimination, exclusion and harassment….(More)”.