It’s Time for Tech to Ask ‘Should We’ Instead of ‘Could We’
What happens when Google, Microsoft, and other big tech companies call on philosophers for ethics help
The future of intelligence is being shaped by five companies, reality is splintering off into political extremes, and expertise is seen as inherently suspicious. A few technology companies have weaved themselves into the essential fabric of our lives — all while automating racial profiling, rigging elections, and undermining worker solidarity.
Philosophers are being called upon more and more to go beyond the reactionary “What the f**k is going on?” and dig into the more nuanced work of “Why?” “How?” and “Should we?”
Responses to these urgent questions are enormous, global, and powerful, while also being detailed, local, and fragile. Answers to “WTF?!” will be layered stories of a few tech giants, millions of businesses and startups, and billions of individuals, each driven by their own unique and messy motivations. To grasp even a small part of this whole — which is all one can ever do — there needs to be a move from critical thinking to creative thinking.
The former tends to prioritize reason and tidiness, while the latter seeks understanding through curiosity and collaborative listening. This method is slower and the results are messier, but creativity clings to humanity in all its ugliness and confusion. Ethicists need a directed and generous focus on the humans building and using technology if they hope to shape the pathway into the future.
The field of ethics, which explores the muddy turf of “should we?” is changing quickly. Historically found within the university walls (and sometimes hospitals), philosophers are now being summoned out of their offices by large companies — the likes of Google and Microsoft — to help mitigate the negative effects of emerging technologies like A.I., automation, and robotics. Yet there are no standards or required qualifications to work as a tech ethicist. Once in the role, one may wear many hats: the academic, the advisor, the board member, the whistleblower, the advocate, the regulator. As with most issues concerning morality or justice, there are myriad personalities as well: the mediator, the collaborator, the…