IT viewed through a moral prism

By Dave Bailey
09 Apr 2009 View Comments
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Are human factors being sidelined in the headlong rush to develop new technologies?

New technology is changing the way we live and work so quickly that it is easy to overlook the social and ethical implications of each new development.

For example, web-based email services such as Google Mail and social networking sites such as the Twitter micro-blogging service and Facebook have raised ethical issues around securing personal data.

Further reading

So a two-year research project to identify emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) and assess any associated ethical pitfalls could be seen as a timely initiative. The Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications (ETICA) project, led by Leicester’s De Montfort University, seeks to minimise the risks associated with technologies likely to enter common use over the next 10 to 15 years.

One of the biggest challenges is predicting which technologies will become mainstream, given that the ICT landscape is likely to be unrecognisable in a decade’s time. Extrapolating technology advances against a backdrop of large, high-bandwidth, optical-fibre fixed-line networks and fast mobile broadband networks could prove difficult.

The project is co-ordinated by Bernd Stahl, reader in critical research in technology at De Montfort’s centre for computing and social responsibility. He admits that a 10 to 15 year window gives “a significant amount of uncertainty”, but said the method by which the initiative would determine which technologies will emerge was essentially empirical.

“We’ll be looking at most of the EU-funded projects, trawling through the proposals and seeing what the researchers think is going to happen in that timeframe,” said Stahl. “Our report would then feed into policy making on a European and national level.”

After ETICA has identified potential technologies, a list of the top five issues will be compiled, with policy recommendations based on the findings sent to EU.

Some of the technologies being considered by the ETICA team are already fair ly left-field, such as ambient intelligence (see below) and emotional computing.

“Emotional computing is an idea to mimic emotional interchange using computers, drawing on human emotions to then feed that into systems,” said Stahl.

Possible uses include an online call centre that can recognise a stressed customer and intercede with a suitable computer-generated response before the customer becomes more emotional and threatens to switch supplier.

Other futuristic technologies that ETICA researchers will be putting under the microscope include autonomous systems, location-sensitive devices, service robotics, ubiquitous computing, and technologies converging with IT, such as human implants or nanotechnology.

Stahl will be guiding EU partners from Belgium, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Holland and Poland, and has ?1m in funding, partly through the EU’s Framework 7 Programme.

“The main report will hit the EU in two years’ time, but it’s also linked to a dissemination study, which we hope will enable us to get this out to a wider audience,” said Stahl.

ETICA wants to reach people interested enough in this area to get involved. “We realise that by the very nature of the study, we’re likely to overlook issues and technologies arising that other people may be aware of and can feed into the project,” he said.

“Analysing the ethical issues resulting from these emerging technologies, although difficult, is vital if we want to be proactive in developing technology that is beneficial to individuals and society.”

Project to assess potential pitfalls of ambient intelligence

One emerging technology being addressed by the ETICA project is ambient intelligence, whereby people live in an environment where computers or objects with embedded processing power are capable of recognising them and responding accordingly and unobtrusively. Such systems could introduce a sea change in user friendliness and interaction support.

Earlier work for the EU’s Framework 5 Programme on ambient intelligence, the Scenarios for Ambient Intelligence in 2010 report, outlined the main research implications and opportunities. The study identified a need for high-bandwidth networks – an issue being addressed by the UK government through communications minister Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report.

“The fully optical network is an important milestone,” says the EU report.
The major focus of the work was efforts to oversee the creation of “intuitive technologies, involving efforts to create human interfaces with variable emotional bandwidth,” says the report.

“Significant advances in machine-to-machine and object-to-object communication and understanding will have to complete this humanised interfacing so as to reduce thresholds of information overload for human beings.”

The implications for deployment of such technology would start alarm bells ringing in many areas of life. Personal privacy and safety are probably the main ethical issues that De Montfort University’s co-ordinator for ETICA, Bernd Stahl, will need to address during the two-year project.

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