Software Development

This Georgetown prof calls out ethically questionable tech companies

Pablo Molina spends his time thinking about the ethical ramifications of all this innovation. We asked him for some practical advice for startups.

Dr. Pablo Molina speaks at TEDxGeorgetown in 2011. (Photo via TEDxGeorgetown)

Science-fiction novels are rife with examples of technologists so focused on what they can do, they forget to think about if they should do it or not. But according to Pablo Molina of Georgetown University, technology developing faster than ethics is no fictional problem.
“Remember that philosophy problem where there’s a runaway train?” Molina asked us over the phone last week. “Well, fast forward to driverless cars. Let’s say it’s going to run over other passengers. Should the car try to veer away and risk you? Or go forward and kill the passengers? Someone has to program that.”
The good news is Molina says it’s possible to design tech in a way that is ethical.
Originally from Spain, Molina, 47, now lives in Cleveland Park and is the Chief Information Officer of the Association of American Law Schools. At Georgetown, the adjunct professor teaches ethics and technology management. He’s also the founder of the International Applied Ethics of Technology Association (IAETA).

Unlike lawyers and doctors, technologists don’t have strong codes of conduct, said Pablo Molina.

Molina founded IAETA to raise awareness on ethical issues in tech communities. This year, IAETA released a list of what a panel of industry experts called most pressing ethical dilemmas in the 2016 tech. Drones, government spying and cybersecurity threats all made the list. The Association is also planning its annual conference, where companies with the best ethical practices get awards — and the worst are shamed. Nominate companies by getting in touch with Molina through IAETA’s website.
For Molina, IAETA is a chance to show the range of ethics that tech communities need to be aware of, problems like legal compliance, inclusivity and professional responsibility.
That last one is the murkiest part of ethics for the technology world, according to him.
“Lawyers or doctors have strong codes of conduct,” he explained to us. “Because of the many ways one can become a technologist, we don’t have strong codes of conduct. We need help there.”
As for the best time for companies to start considering the ethics of their tech? As soon as possible, he said.
Molina gave the example of how consumers give up privacy when companies design products like operating systems without taking security into account from the beginning.
But is meeting these ethical considerations too costly for small tech companies? After all, a startup isn’t likely to have access to same resources as the tech giants.
The important thing, Molina said, is that companies do whatever they are able to.
“Startups have a lot of ingenuity,” he said. “Just don’t devote all of that to just making money.”
IAETA curates a list resources for companies and individuals looking to learn more about ethical practices.


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