Ethics, Virtues, and SmartCities Tech

Occasionally, at SmartAustin, we like to take a step back from the rapid pace of tech and startups, and to consider some of the ways in which tech is impacting our broader society. We've covered, for instance, the "Blockchain for Impact" and Estonia as a "Digital Republic". More recently, we've been thinking (as have many) a bit more about AI (top AI-focused book we've read is Kai-Fu Lee's AI Superpowers) and came across a quote from Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and AI Ethicist/Visiting Researcher at Google. In Wired's 11/13/18 issue, Vallor is quoted as saying that "There are no independent machine values. Machine Values are human values."

After reading a bit more about Vallor's work, we were inspired to pick up her book, Technology and the Virtues and found it a delight. The book deserves a much more thorough treatment than what we'll give it here, but for the purposes of this blog, and thinking a bit about how startups launch themselves at technical problems, with maniacal focus, we'll call out a couple of quotes.

  • Quoting the philosopher Ortega y Gasset: "in the very root of his essence man finds himself call upon to be an engineer" but ". . . technology is . . . not the beginning of things. . . . it does not draw up [the human] project.

  • Vallor earlier quotes David Friedberg, "the CEO of a big data analytics firm . .  : 'What happens when every secret [is exposed] from who really did the work in the office, to sex, to who said what is that we get a more truthful society. . . . Technology is the empowerment of more truth and fewer things taken on faith.'" . . . "Implicit in this statement," Vallor comments, "is the unquestioned privilege of truth over other moral values, including trust, respect, compassion, humility, and flexibility. Better to always have the 'truth' about whom on the team 'really did the work' than to permit the guy who was up all night soothing a colicky child to quietly slack off at work one afternoon without risk of exposure. . . ."

You can definitely argue that all of these high sentiments and moral qualms have very little to do with startups, or that startups can't afford themselves the luxury of thinking too hard about these kinds of things. Founders need to make a living, get their businesses started, and solve problems that other people agree exist. Usually these have to do with efficiency, speed, and customer experience, and not with “drawing up the human project” or with the propagating "compassion, humility, and flexibility." Fair enough.

Fortunately, Vallor's work (and we're sure there are others like her) goes beyond her excellent book, and includes practical tools for helping businesses integrate ethics into their work. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, where she is on the Steering Committee, includes a list of Best Ethical Practices in Technology, which can guide tech companies looking to instill a culture of ethics (more detail is available at the site):

“1. Keep Ethics in the Spotlight—and Out of the Compliance Box

2. Highlight the Human Lives and Interests behind the Technology

3. Consider Downstream (and Upstream and Lateral) Risks for Technologies

4. Don’t Discount Non-Technical Actors, Interests, and Expectations

5. Envision the Technical Ecosystem

6. Mind the Gap between User Expectations and Reality

7. Avoid Hype and Myths around Technology

8. Establish Chains of Ethical Responsibility and Accountability

9. Treat Technology as a Conditional Good

10. Practice Disaster Planning and Crisis Response

11. Promote the Values of Autonomy, Transparency, and Trustworthiness

12. Consider Disparate Interests, Resources, and Impacts

13. Design for Privacy and Security

14. Invite Diverse Stakeholder Input

15. Make Ethical Reflection & Practice Standard, Pervasive, Iterative, and Rewarding

16. Model and Advocate for Ethical Tech Practice"

Finally, the site offers a series of tools and frameworks to support applying ethics in technology. We'll end with a schematic (source here, screenshot below) that grabbed our attention, provided here for your reference:


We believe that companies that adopt rules and practices around to support ethics in technology will be at an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retention. A systemic approach may be extremely difficult or impossible in the very early survival stages but is well-worth considering as your company gains traction and begins to mature. We'll all benefit.