I recently attended the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). APPE is a group comprised of applied ethicists and professionals who meet to share common concerns and insights. I usually attend because APPE is the place where you are most likely to run into engineering and computer ethicists. In most years, there are only three or four sessions on these topics, which usually leave you crying out for more. This year’s meeting was different – it featured an NSF-funded preconference workshop on “Pervasive and Autonomous Technology” (PAIT) and a post-conference “mini-conference” on “ Engineering towards a More Just and Sustainable World” (EMJSW) sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society (both of which I played a role in planning).
The PAIT workshop focused on two related but somewhat different technological concepts, pervasive (or ubiquitous) computing and autonomous technology (e.g., “smart” robots). The workshop brought together two dozen experts (mostly academics) in such fields as artificial intelligence, computer ethics and science & technology studies to explore the social and ethical implications of PAIT. As is the case in most such workshops, the value was not so much in the products as in the process. Old acquaintances were renewed and new networks were formed. Most of the PAIT technologies can be classified as “emerging technologies;” as such they pose difficult legal and ethical questions as well as fundamental questions about the governance of technology.
At the APPE meeting proper I was involved in a presentation of the latest educational video produced by the National Institute of Engineering Ethics. The film, Henry’s Daughters, is about ethical conflicts encountered by three family members working on the same intelligent transportation system project. The executive producers (of which I am one) explicitly set out to include gender issues such as sexual harassment in the video along with other more typical engineering ethics topics such as conflict-of-interest, intellectual property, bribery, and public safety & welfare. Some audience members (mostly men) thought the gender issues were a distraction in the video (we expected to hear this). Others (mostly women) thought the gender issues were poorly presented – the most surprising comment was that since one of the daughters was a single woman in her thirties the video gave the false impression that women had to give up raising families to be successful in engineering.
The EMJSW workshop, which attracted some engineering practitioners as well as academic ethicists, in contrast to the PAIT workshop, considered familiar themes – social and environmental justice – but in an unfamiliar context: engineering. Unlike the PAIT workshop, which despite spirited disagreements was largely conducted in a cooperative atmosphere, the EMJSW conference featured heated debate and rancor between engineering traditionalists and those who favor total engagement by engineers in these topics. This was particularly true in the first panel on “Engineering and Social Justice” where the traditionalists said the social justice folks were “not ready for prime time” and the social justice contingent accused the traditionalists of “arrogance.”
By the end of the week I had had my fill of hotel coffee and the arguments of engineering and computer ethicists on both familiar (if unique to engineering) issues such as social justice and novel issues posed by emerging technologies such as pervasive mobile computing and autonomous military robots. A term some of us have applied to these issues is “macroethics” to distinguish them from the more traditional engineering ethics issues involving conduct of individuals (i.e. “microethics”). Whatever you choose to call it, to paraphrase the well-worn catch-phrase, “it’s not your father’s – or mother’s – engineering ethics.”
the Author: Joe Herkert is
Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology in ASU’s School of Letters
and Sciences and an associate professor at CSPO.