I was on a car ride with a business person recently. I will not disclose this individual’s name, as I do not wish to misrepresent them. I would, however, like to share the words I heard come out of this person’s mouth. The conversation, in my mind, was technical in nature. We were discussing the advancements in technology, particularly autonomous vehicles. We were talking about the mechanics of a self-driving car, and naturally, ethics came up. The classic conundrum came up: If the vehicle you are in faces an obstacle that happens to be a human being, what happens? Can the person in the vehicle choose to stop the car, or will the car continue in speed and drive into this person? The algorithmic possibilities are numerous, but which one is “right?”
I was beginning to like where the conversation was going until a person in the car said, “ethics don’t matter if there is a market.” Everyone kind of seemed to agree that this made sense. Most people in the car were not technical, but rather social entrepreneurs and business minded. This comment made me think of a comment that was made by an Uber software engineer said something similar. He said that there was “no room for ethics.”
These comments are frightening. People that are driven by profit, power, or maybe ignorance, do not see ethics in technology from a sensible perspective. This mindset and perspective can be quite damaging. If one sees ethics and business as independent don’t make this world any better of a place to live.
In an article I read, I realized that ethics isn’t only of concern when it comes to the technology in development, but also in marketing, finances and many other areas. Uber is known as an unethical company because of its CEO. The article I read mentioned that the ethical nature of the company tends to come from the top. This makes me wonder if every company should have an ethical leader. It might be a stretch to expect every company have an ethical expert or counselor, or even an ethical system in place that checks if their policies and procedures are ethical.
It would be difficult to put rules around certain marketing strategies, for instance. There was some fuss about Uber hiring people to take Lyfts and convince them to join Uber. Something like this, according to the article, was seen as ethical. This strategy seems permissible in a capitalistic society. It might ride the ethical border, but I think there are more ethical matters that Uber does that are more noteworthy, like the software engineer who wanted to allow the payment not to go to the driver if a customer said they were unsatisfied.
Since this engineer was a senior engineer, they company did not want to lose him, so they questioned very little. Having an ethical system in place, would make the individuals involved in this conversation seem less uncomfortable.