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October 23, 2017
Is there a dark side to digital?
By: Niamh McKenna

As readers of my blogs know, I like looking at the intersection of ethics and technology, and a couple of recent developments in the smartphone world got me thinking about digital ethics.

The first relates to the iPhone X, which will be secured through advanced facial-recognition technology. This is a step-up in facial recognition software and by all accounts will be near-impossible to fool. The second I learned first-hand from the founder of a security start-up. The company’s technology can identify individuals based on how they use their phones, and can automatically lock the phone when it detects unrecognised behaviour. … so if you suddenly start tapping the screen aggressively then it could go into lockdown!

These innovations push new boundaries, but they also raise important questions. In both cases, the designers have set out to create a positive solution to phone security, but there are unintended consequences of all technology that we must be aware of and look to mitigate.

The capability of these new technologies are incredibly powerful. For instance, a computer can more accurately judge a person’s personality than their spouse, using nothing more than Facebook “Likes.” This ability to know people as individuals provides obvious benefits—such as a more secure smartphone—but there are also drawbacks: If we can recognise people based on personality traits, we can target those who are most vulnerable to persuasion. And this we’ve seen this in the UK where some online casinos have used third-party companies to harvest people’s data and help them better target ex-gamblers and people on low incomes. I think we can all think of reasons to protect this sort of information from misuse – beyond winning the domestic arguments!

We also need to ensure rapid development of digital technology doesn’t leave people behind. Digital exclusion is a real challenge and one that innovation may exacerbate. I’ve recently been working on a project to help elderly people embrace new technology. They are concerned with some of the developments in technology such as banking apps. For most of us, these services are now second nature to use, but for many elderly people they’re still complex and daunting. As a result, the widespread closure of bank branches is a cause for concern for people in this demographic, many of whom feel they’re at risk of being “unbanked”.

The challenge is that emerging technologies often have exclusion baked in to them. Technologies such as Virtual Reality and Speech Recognition often rely on physical abilities— sight, speech, action— making them unavailable to people with certain disabilities or illnesses. Such factors risk excluding a range of people from the benefits of new technology and could lead to many people being unable to access important services. Digital technology does have the power to connect in amazing ways so we can surely work towards inclusion rather than exclusion.

For me, the answer lies in a coordinated effort across business, government and society to guide and regulate technological developments. One thing is for certain: Governments can’t go it alone; technology evolves much quicker than their ability to legislate, while new technologies such as AI and blockchain, by their nature, transcend national boundaries and industries.

Could we put in place a global, open forum that brings businesses, non-profits and governments together to create a new framework for the design of exceptional, inclusive and ethical digital services. Working together, we can ensure that the benefits of digitalisation are optimized, and any unintended consequences overcome.

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