Ethics in the platform economy

Technology development has reached the phase where technology provides direct actions and services without the need of a human being involvement. In platforms, data is the asset and multiple technologies are used to collect, store, analyse, share and present the data. AI makes analyses, diagnoses and decisions, robots perform human like actions and mobile phones offer everybody an access to the integrated systems (platforms) formed by the new and emerging technologies. The novel systems are not only showcases any longer but they are an essential part of our everyday life. Therefore, ethics plays an important role in these complex systems and needs to be studied carefully.

In this signal post we discuss the ethical challenges of platforms and the applied technologies and explore the possibilities to take ethics into account when designing and developing new systems.

Ethics and emerging technologies

Ethics refers to “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”, “the moral correctness of specified conduct” or “the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles”. The minimum set of ethical and moral principles are implemented in laws and regulations, which often are trailing behind the technology development. One example of such a situation is the collection and use of data: the big platform players have collected personal data for years and used it in building their systems and services. Now the EU is launching the General Data Protection Regulation (Directive 95/46/EC) which will be in force on 25 May 2018. Another area of current ethical concerns is the autonomous vehicles, both for civil and military purposes. In case of autonomous cars, how should the optimization be made, whom or what (human welfare, safety of the passenger or those on the road, environment, etc.) to prioritize and on what grounds?

On the other hand, ethical challenges in the medical and pharmaceutical R&D have been identified in time and the regulations and codes of conducts were first developed there and are in place in developed countries. However, the emerging technologies constantly trigger new ethical issues. Current ones include the genome editing and the use of robots in taking care of patients or elderly people. The modern health care platforms tend to imply all possible ethical issues from personal data protection to the use of AI and robots in any imaginable combinations.

Ethics assessment

In case of the development and application of emerging technologies, regulation may not always be timely enough and more generic forward looking guidance is needed. The EU SATORI project developed a CEN workshop agreement on ethics assessment and an ethical impact assessment framework for research and innovation. IEEE has introduced a Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. Its General Principles Committee seeks to articulate high-level ethical concerns that apply to all types of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems that:

1) “Embody the highest ideals of human rights that honour their inherent dignity and worth.
2) Prioritize the maximum benefit to humanity and the natural environment.
3) Mitigate risks and negative impacts as AI/AS evolve as socio-technical systems.”

In an ideal world, the ethical principles should be harmonized to avoid the “distant working” in such countries where the regulation allows the unethical actions. The harmonization is challenging because the interpretation of ethics is based on moral principles and those vary from culture to culture. Discussion and collaboration between technology developers, philosophers and sociologists are needed to develop the principles and necessary codes of conducts. The transparency offered by social media platforms can be helpful in raising the awareness of ethics. When taking the issue further, the prevailing culture should be built into the systems if we don’t want the systems to develop our culture in the future.

Selected articles and websites

Directive 95/46/EC, The General Data Protection Regulation
Ethics assessment for research and innovation – Part 1: Ethics committee
Ethics assessment for research and innovation – Part 2: Ethical impact assessment framework
Finland Banks on Medical Robots to Facilitate Elderly Care
SATORI- Stakeholders Acting Together On the ­ethical impact assessment of ­Research and Innovation
Shashkevich, A., Stanford scholars, researchers discuss key ethical questions self-driving cars present
The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems
What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9?

Raija Koivisto

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd.
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