Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?

The digital revolution connects people. Or at least, so we’re told. Our assumption about the internet and digital technology is that it is about people communicating with people. Great benefits, anyone with a laptop and broadband can make services for a potential global audience. Or so the story goes. The conflicts online involve real people: trolls on forums, privacy issues, grooming, hackers and man-made viruses. Or that’s what we like to think.

But what if the digital revolution is about machines communicating with other machines? What if algorithms, software bots and smart devices make the most traffic? The stock market report in the newspaper you read with your morning coffee is not made by an editor; or it is but, that editor is a bot, compiling data from stock market servers. Most of the trades on that stock market are done by machines. The ads on that news paper’s web page (and all other web pages) are published by algorithms, and bought by bots on micro-second ad exchanges. When you tweet your thoughts on the latest market trends, that tweet is read, analysed, retweeted and stored by bots (often with human looking account names). And you haven’t even finished that morning coffee yet.

Within five years, a majority of online traffic will be machine-generated. Humans will be in the minority in terms of connectivity. That is the complete opposite of the way we think about the internet today and it raises many questions: can machines be accountable for mistakes? Small mistakes, sure, but what about medical treatment bots, self-driving trucks, or automated weapon systems? All of those technologies exist today. The trends of cloud computing, big data and smart devices accelerate this development in the direction of machines increasingly making decisions without human involvement.

Done right, this could be a blessing – scores of bots making your life easier. But the past six months’ reveals about privacy abuse by both government and private organisations suggest that it’s much more complicated. The legal consequences of this technology must be addressed, yesterday. Most importantly, what sort of ethics go into these systems?

To address these questions, Netopia publishes the report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? to be presented at a seminar in Brussels on Tuesday. Hope to see you there!