Ethics, by definition, are a set of principles that govern decision making and define the morals of a single individual. They influence how a person differs between right and wrong, their rights and responsibilities and how they live their lives. The code of ethics is a long list of principles that cover a wide range of aspects of everyday life and how to deal with different situations by understanding the concept of right and wrong.
To keep up with the constant evolution and development in technology, organizations such as the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) have defined a set of computer ethics that cover 3 main aspects of technological usage:
- Privacy concerns: this deals with various security issues that have risen with the development in technology such as hacking and malware and how to ensure the protection of data and anonymity through various applications
- Intellectual property rights: this aspect covers an individual's rights to their creative content and deals with issues such as plagiarism, copyright, software license and cracking ( getting access to a software through illegal means).
- Societal effects of the development and usage of technology: this talks about the influence of technology in terms of economic development and its environmental and social impacts.
Rapid technological growth has led to developments in different fields; research in biotechnology has opened a door to a whole new world of possibilities, ranging from genetic engineering to artificial pregnancies. Artificial intelligence has reformed the manufacturing industry. Machines are used to carry out repetitive tasks, which were previously undertaken by manual labour. Quantum physics has been combined with computer science to develop a new technology that will transform means of transportation.
Another large aspect of the evolving technologies is social media, which has impacted our way of life. Global networking has connected different corners of the world and increased accessibility to a vast amount of information. Social media has become a platform for many historical movements to combat socio-political issues such as climate change, racism, gender inequality, under-representation of minority groups and many more. Social media has also become a medium for artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs to gain recognition and establish themselves. The Internet has become a source of distance learning, providing educational facilities to anyone with an electronic device and a connection.
Technology and innovation are something that is constantly changing and evolving. But where do we draw the line? How far is too much? As the last century clearly shows, developing technologies left to the whims of mankind is a dangerous weapon, calling moral ethics into question. Where all the new developments are being used to improve the quality of life, we must also consider the cost of evolution and the limits of our control over this technology.
Technology is dependent on individual ideas and opinions. So genetically altering and shaping the future generation to fit certain ideals created the Eugenic Movement in 20th century USA, leading to issues such as classism, forced sterilization and genocide. The Eugenics Movement, appropriately captured in the black stork (1917), was also the inspiration behind Nazi Germany. The lesson drawn from this was that nature should be embraced with all its diversity and without any meddling on our part. However, scientists still continue to experiment with genome modification, leading to ethical concerns of permanently altering the human genetic code due to insufficient knowledge about the detrimental effects that may accompany genetic modification.
The potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to become more superior to any human intelligence paints a dark future for humanity. Considering the pace of development in AI, the possibility that AI will be established in all aspects of human life poses a threat to our privacy, job security and, as depicted in various movies, our very existence. The introduction of artificial intelligence to fields of medicine, manufacturing, law enforcement etc. may lead to a rise in many ethical issues dealing with unemployment of unskilled labour and the lack of accountability. The dangerous issue of self-aware or rogue AI currently poses no threat but in the near future, AI supercomputers might. Technological singularity, referring to the point where technological growth will surpass human intelligence and which also will signal the end of the human era, is said to be as soon as 2030 considering the rate of innovation and the redundancy of human beings as compared to machines.
The biggest modern-day concern regarding technological impact is the loss of an individual’s privacy and rights to their own lives. Social media such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook only aids this issue. Once a post is made and shared, it will virtually exist forever despite deletion. Even if it is wiped off of the Internet, it will continue to exist in the site servers. This makes a person vulnerable to all sorts of attacks such as hacking, identity theft, cyber bullying, black mail and many more. Cyber-attacks, which are a threat to national security, have pushed governments to make profiles and increase surveillance on individual citizens resulting in further exploitation of a person's digital footprint.
Social media has also led to rise in teenage anxiety and depression because at such an impressionable age, children have so much exposure to current world events, trends and issues and they tend to develop insecurities that consume them in order to be socially accepted. Otherwise they may fall victim to cyberbullying and harassment, blackmail, death threats or social isolation. Social media is also romanticizes otherwise unethical activities in order to be trendy, such as drugs, underage use of alcohol, underage sex, violence as well as becoming a platform to spread hate in the name of free speech. Statistics show that students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018). Current research suggests that suicide ideation and attempts among adolescents have nearly doubled since 2008 (Plemmons et al., 2018), making suicide the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals 10-34 years of age (CDC, 2017) and approximately 1 in 20 adolescents experience a suicide each single year (Andriessen, Dudley, Draper, & Mitchell, 2018)
One of the most prevalent issues is scams and sexual predators lurking on social media with access to so much information about a single person. Trolls posing as legitimate companies scam people into divulging sensitive information that can easily be misused or leaked to the general population. Similarly, individuals posing as friendly strangers target young children and persuade them to share sensitive data such as their contact information, addresses, inappropriate images and then use this data according to their choice, which has led to a rise in problems such as illegal child porn, kidnapping etc. A person's picture can also be manipulated and photoshopped into an image which might cause trouble for the individual.
Another issue is piracy and copyright infringement. People have a right to their intellectual property and if their ideas are stolen, copied, or used without credit, then it is considered a violation of their rights. To deal with this problem, copyright infringement has been made punishable by law.
Along with this, technological growth has also become the culprit of environmental degradation. Large industries discard huge amounts of harmful, toxic waste that pollute the land and sea, affecting all forms of life. As individuals, we too contribute to this vicious cycle by irresponsibly burning fuels, deforestation, and littering, using products that are bad for the environment without thinking of the repercussions.
Technology will continue to evolve and change but, unfortunately, it will give way to new and much bigger ethical issues that can only be dealt with if the developments are carried out whilst keeping ethical principles as a foundation in order to receive the maximum benefit of what scientific evolution has to offer.
Maha Attique, Turkey