Hardwiring ethics into a future worth wanting

Published: 06/10/2020

How can we fuse technology and ethics to create the kind of future we want? Professor Shannon Vallor, Director of the Centre for Technomoral Futures in Edinburgh, talks to the DDI and David Lee about why we must act urgently.

Every day, we all make a multitude of instant and often emotional online decisions, which leave behind a digital footprint.

We might have an uneasy sense about that digital footprint, a feeling that the data we generate by these online decisions might be used in ways we don’t like, or don’t fully understand.

Yet how often do we stop to think how we might shape technology in an image we want, and not just allow it to shape us?

Professor Shannon Vallor arrived at the University of Edinburgh as the first Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and AI, and Director of the new Centre for Technomoral Futures at the Edinburgh Futures Institute – determined to accelerate the debate about creating what she calls “a future worth wanting”.

“The digital environments we have built are not conducive to the kind of community, democratic structures and types of leadership that we want for our futures,” says Professor Vallor, who has worked at the intersection of ethics and emerging technologies for 15 years.

“So what kind of digital environments, platforms, processes and systems do we need to enable a future worth wanting, where we can flourish together?”

Professor Vallor, who came to Edinburgh from Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley, says we shouldn’t accept that powerful technology will inevitably mould our fate.

“We must avoid technological determinism that says technology leads and society follows,” she says. “That’s a lie, a convenient lie for those building their values into these technologies.

“Technology and Artificial Intelligence are human all the way – built to promote, optimise or systematise; built to create power and realise specific values in the world.

“Humans are the creators of technology and technologies are therefore reflections of human power, will and values. We need to ensure human accountability isn’t lost.”

This is at the heart of the mission of the Centre for Technomoral Futures.

It starts with the premise that technology and morality, or technology and ethics, are not unrelated.

“The aim is to move away from that artificial, damaging split between technology and society,” says Professor Vallor.

“Doing technology right is no different to doing society right,” says Professor Vallor. “Technology does not live outside our social world; it’s interwoven.

“I want to figure out, using a blend of data-driven and humanistic tools, what are the forms of expertise, technological and moral, that can design and manage systems that work better for people, to build better worlds.

“It’s not the tools themselves that can build those better worlds, it’s people and the moral and social intelligence they use.”

Read the full interview here.

Interview conducted by David Lee.

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