Have hope

Guided by personal ethics of ‘do more good’, Yuet Mee Ho-Nambiar has a long involvement with sustainability and community building activities.  Belief in the oneness of humanity and the nobility of man underpins her interest in matters relating to unity and social cohesion of communities, while her background in a finance-related profession focuses her interest to the area of inclusive economics and development.  

Responsible Digital Technologies

By Yuet Mee Ho-Nambiar

Recently my daughter showed me a tech tool whose website describes it as follows: xxx’s clean, blank canvas design combined with an incredible AI writing assistant gives you writing superpowers. Think of xxx as autocomplete for your thoughts — whole sentences and paragraphs fluently written by AI to significantly improve your writing speed.

It at once got me all excited about the prospects of such a tool but also, at the same time, made me think about the many troubles we could get into with such technologies.

Undoubtedly, technological innovation has been the source of many advancements. Yet, like any tool, it can be deployed productively or destructively, depending on the ethical considerations underlying its design and use. For example, agricultural innovation, through the creation of sustainable technologies and environmentally friendly methods, has increased food security for many worldwide.

However, if driven by strict profit motives, it can result in exploitation of both workers and natural resources, and potentially further deepen inequalities. Digital technologies are not implicitly neutral. Technological innovation, much like the prevalent development approach, is deeply influenced by materialistic underpinnings largely founded on the conviction that the acquisition of goods will conduce to greater levels of wellbeing.

Solutions are often devised based on these assumptions and widely promoted without considering the social and ethical implications. Take for instance the AI-driven technology. It is often designed to incentivise individuals to become consumers of online content, and passive recipients of goods and services.

The online mega sales now held monthly by numerous retailers is certainly encouraging the culture of compulsive buying behaviour in many. The World Economic Forum reported in January 2020 that our one-click culture had resulted in e-commerce sales ratios nearly tripled globally during the period 2014-2019; that rising congestion and emissions from e-commerce delivery are putting stress on city traffic patterns and will only rise from growing demand unless effective intervention is quickly taken by both cities and companies.

They added that by 2030, the demand for last-mile delivery is expected to grow 78% with online stores, e-grocers and food delivery services competing to offer faster home deliveries. Think about what this means in terms of the impact on our planet – from the consumption of scarce non-renewable raw materials to the carbon emissions to the waste generated.

Even when technologies benefit society in some ways, they can have the effect of perpetuating existing disparities or undermine other social goals. While many have benefited from the digital technology, it is also clear that the rich have benefited more, widening the digital divide. Without societal and political intervention to address the moral and other collective needs, digital technology may potentially further aggravate inequities.

Without an understanding of the needs of the users themselves, the indiscriminating adoption of technological tools and services could inadvertently result in communities losing touch with important elements of their cultural heritage and local values. We have seen how excessive exposure to the forces of social media can negatively affect our lives – from emotional and mental health to selective self-presentation and narcissism, to the declining quality of interpersonal relationships, besides privacy and security issues.

Various forms of social bias and inequity are often embedded in the design or application of technologies. Decisions related to use and distribution are often left to a few who may not foresee such consequences. This challenge is exacerbated further in digital technologies as specific values and assumptions are engineered into the products and adopted at a pace exceeding the capacity of even the most qualified legislatures to properly assess. There are troubling instances with real-world implications.

For instance, if we only look to social media as a way to support decision making, it has the potential to skew our thinking. If we only get information from the people who think like us, we will never see contrasting points of view and will tend to ignore and deny alternatives. Increasingly reliance is placed on learning systems to build the rule sets to predict rates of behaviours – from sales models to crime patterns.

As AI technology learns from the data it receives, the resulting systems will be biased in decision-making if skewed data is fed, perpetuating biases. In 2015, Amazon realised that their algorithm used for hiring employees was found to be biased against women because the algorithm was based on the number of resumes submitted over the past ten years, and since most of the applicants were men, it was trained to favour men over women.

Another worrying trend is deepfakes which uses a form of artificial intelligence to make images of fake events. This technology is increasingly accessible to many and while it provides much entertainment value, can be misused to harass, intimidate, demean, undermine and destabilise.

In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, where more digital technologies are adopted out of perceived or actual necessity, unforeseen consequences arise, no matter how well-intended a technological system or solution. When high-powered technology falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for criminal, immoral, and malicious ends. Scary reports of ransomware (malware used to prevent access to a computer system until a ransom is paid) is certainly on the rise.

As digital tools are increasingly applied to all areas of our individual and collective lives, the question shifts from whether such technologies should be used, to how they can be appropriately designed and applied. For one, the individuals and the businesses driving technological innovations need to be mindful about fostering responsible design, use, and distribution of digital technologies to meet essential social needs.

They ought to also think about values such as moderation, justice, and cultural diversity which should underpin digital technologies which could help us contribute meaningfully to our communities and to society at large. Such processes would do well to be informed by the experiences and needs of local communities rather than only by external market or ideological forces.

Crucially too, reflective questions such as the following need to be asked. What types of digital technologies reflect a community’s vibrancy? Is the technology being adopted in a way that is suited to our community’s needs? What forces drive our communities to utilise these technologies? How can we ensure that algorithmic outcomes and decisions are not tainted by prejudices of any kind?

Humanity is now at an inflection point in human affairs. The world-engulfing medical pandemic has precipitated greater reliance on digital technologies to carry out our basic tasks and to remain connected. The looming climate crisis is also demanding changes in the way we live. As we rebuild from covid, we should re-think and re-shape digital technologies to enable a just transition to a future which reflects the highest expression of humanity’s aspirations.

The views expressed here are that of the writer’s and not necessarily that of Weekly Echo’s.

Editor’s note: Please check out the Have Hope Exchange at https://havehope2.blogspot.com/ The site provides information on essential needs and services during this period of need.