Unit 1.5.2 Moral and Ethical Issues

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As part of the specification, you are required to be aware of a range of topics in computing in which there could be moral and ethical issues. These include the impact of AI, how character sets can affect usage, accessibility of webpages and more. This page will only aim to give a quick overview of the topics but will not go into too much depth.

Computers in the Workforce[edit]

The development of computers provided an entirely new way to do many tasks and as computers have advances and become more complex, it has opened up more opportunities for places in which they can be implemented. In the past few years, computers have begun to form an essential part of any workforce, no matter the type of work that they are doing.

Additionally, specially designed computers, such as in the form of robots, have been developed which are able to replace what would previously have taken a person to achieve. One of the key examples of this would be in manufacturing industries such as car production. Before the use of robots, it would have required teams of people working along a production lines to produce a car. However, with the advancements in automation, almost an entire factory can be replaced by a set of machines on a production lines which can produce cars with greater accuracy for less money over time.

Furthermore, this change in the workforce has influenced the skill sets required for many jobs as it is assumed that you will be interacting with a computer in many jobs. It has also opened up many job opportunities related to the production, maintenance and use of these machines. For example, in a factory you need people to design, produce, develop, test, implement, maintain and control the robots producing the cars.

The rise of online marketplaces and online banking have also changed the face of retail and finance meaning that jobs such as a bank clerk are less in demand as more people move to managing their money online. With the rise of marketplaces as well, we have seen a rise in the number of stores that do not actually have a shop, where all transactions are handled online.

Automated Decision Making[edit]

Automated decision making is the process by which computers make a decision based on some range of data available to it. It is most frequently implemented in places where many decisions of the same type need to be made in very quick succession. This is not be confused with AI as this topic only covers basic decisions on a single topic based around data. One of the main implementations, and one of the most well-known, is in the field of financial trading.

In 2011 it was estimated that 77% of trades made in the UK stock markets were as a result of automatic traders or algorithmic trading. These systems use various models, using the historical data from the market, to predict the best times to buy and sell in order to try and make a profit. The developments in computing power has led to a significant rise in their use as computers are capable of modelling a predicted outcome in a manner of nanoseconds before performing a trade.

Financial trading, however, is not the only place in which these systems can be implemented. Any field that requires fast and predictable decisions to be made can benefit from systems such as these. These include:

  • Managing the power grid in order to keep up with demand (such as varying power generation)
  • Automatic response to disasters
  • Plant automation such as power plants or distribution centres
  • Aircraft monitoring systems (collision avoidance and fight path correction systems)
  • Credit assessments within banks

It is always worth remembering that these system are only as accurate as their data and their logic. This means that if the data is faulty then the decisions will not be accurate and if the programming is sub-par, it can cause incorrect results. Depending on where the systems are implemented, these can lead to catastrophic results (examples include speculation that a 2010 flash crash was caused by automatic traders causing a wave of selling).

Artificial Intelligence[edit]

The aim of developing artificial intelligence is to produce a system that can emulate human intelligence in some real and meaningful way in order to solve problems which require more cognitive thought. There are many different types of lesser versions of AI such as chess playing robots that have been designed specifically to be intelligent when applied to the game of chess. Additionally, software such as expert systems link large data sources with more advanced processing methods to draw connections and are often used within fields such as medicine and law in order to find relevant diseases and cases respectively based on a set of search criteria.

The main technology used within this field are neural networks which attempt to simulate the mental patterns of people by creating sets of nodes with various activation functions which will eventually produce a valid output when data is passed through them. They are designed to learn from a set of data and then apply that knowledge to a new set of data in order to produce decisions.

Basic AIs have been implemented into many aspects of our day to day lives even though we may not notice them:

  • Financial fraud detection that looks at credit and debit card transactions in order to identify unusual purchases and transactions.
  • Speech recognition systems that can produce dynamic responses (Google's Assistant, Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Windows' Cortana).
  • Medical diagnosis systems that determine disorders from self-reported symptoms
  • Control systems in various plants (power, chemical etc) that respond intelligently to different requirements

All of these systems are based on a vast wealth of knowledge that is queried in some complex way by the queries that are produced from the input of the user. The ideas of full AIs raise some ethical questions such as if an AI had some basic form of sentience, what rights should it have? Should we just be able to switch it off? Should the programmer be accountable for the actions of the machine they created?

Environmental Effects[edit]

One of the main dilemmas with computers that has been around for a long time is the environmental effects. This has become a lot more prominent in the modern day as we have entered into a society in which many believe they must have the newest devices and are constantly changing phones, computers and laptops. This means that we suddenly have many more devices being disposed of and many more being produced every day. This raises some serious concerns about the environmental impact of disposing and producing electronic devices.

The internals of a modern electronic device are very complex and require some toxic materials in small amounts such as airborne dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, cadmium, chromium, radioactive isotopes and mercury. While some countries consider these devices to be a hazardous waste as a result, it does not stop them from shipping the devices to places in which there are much looser restrictions. This can lead to situations in which children are picking through old devices in order to find metals that can be recycled or sold which can expose them to the dangerous chemicals

Another key concern with the rise in technology is the rise in the amount of power required to keep them functioning. We have seen more large scale technology companies spring up in recent years and each must host their own technology and servers which will draw incredible amounts of power. It is estimated that Google could be running around 900,000 servers alone. This raises questions about power generation and how that is impacting our environment; however, some companies are becoming aware of this fact and implementing measures as a result such as renewable power generation such as solar panels and turbines.

Censorship and the Internet[edit]

Censorship has become a popular topic recently within the UK with new laws being passed about censorship of the internet and how we should control the internet in order to limit extremist propaganda and terrorism as a whole. There are two main aspects to censorship: local and country.

Local Censorship[edit]

This is simply when an organisation places a restriction on their web access. This could include web filters at a school, workplace or a library. These are often implemented in order to prevent people accessing resources that they should not or things that would reduce productivity within a work place. This includes but is not limited to: social media, games, pornography, web filter bypassing services and more. Many people will agree to these terms willingly as they understand that it is a requirement of their job or the location they are at and because they are most likely temporary as the filters will not impact them when they leave.

Country Censorship[edit]

This is the more contested issue which can divide people very easily. The extent to which the government has the ability to block and filter access to specific resources has been a very hot topic recently with the rise in radicalisation primarily but also for a range of reasons. The UK recently have passed laws that require ISPs to block specific content including sites relating to extremist politics, extreme pornography, and sites the infringe on copyright law. While these may sound like reasonable restrictions to many in order to protect citizens from unpleasant or illegal content, many view it as the start of more filters in which a government could suppress ideas through filters.

The main question raised is at what point we draw the line between censorship to protect citizens and when it is for alternative purposes. This is a very difficult line to draw with many arguments on either side which has recently cause some major divisions in beliefs. Some believe in a free internet in which nothing is filtered but many realise that there is a need for censorship in situations where it could pose a danger such as in the interests of national security.

However, while we can view this issue from both sides as we still have mostly free access with only some restrictions being introduced, there are many that do not have that freedom such as in countries in which there are dictatorship rules as they can use internet censorship in order to reduce access to anti-political propaganda. One of the main countries that people are aware of is the North Korean internet which is so heavily filtered that only a number of top officials still have access to the outside internet.

Monitoring Behaviour Using Computers[edit]

Alongside censorship, online surveillance has become a very controversial topic the recent years with the release of the Edward Snowden files revealing the data collection of the NSA and a more general understanding about how much companies can now about us. This has raised serious questions about how much information we want recorded about us and what right to privacy we have online. Online surveillance poses a very different type of problem from the standard security camera on each corner approach as the internet is usually considered a freer domain.

However, the rise in surveillance and monitoring of behaviours have not just been linked to the internet. With the reduction in price and rise in availability of computers, they have been implemented in many more places to provide new solutions to monitoring. Examples include:

  • Ankle monitors for criminals in order to record their locations or to impose house arrest rules
  • Black boxes which are becoming more frequent in cars from insurers as a method of reduces premium costs by recording the quality of driving.
  • Ankle monitors that detect alcohol in people who have had problems with alcohol use
  • Logging systems in workplaces

Workplaces have also recently began requesting access to employee social media accounts or to review the content before they hire. This is usually done as the employee is a representative of the company and therefore will, at all times, be reflecting the company and they want to make sure that they will not bring any issues with them to the company. However, many believe that this is a violation of privacy and that their work lives and personal lives should be distinctly separate.

“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.” - George Orwell, 1984

With the rise in these surveillance and monitoring systems it has raised many questions as to the extent that we should be monitored and to what freedoms we deserve in the technological age. Many believe that the increased use such as the implementation of the Snoopers Charter mark a move towards 'Big Brother' society; however, many others regard it as a positive move that allows us to protect citizens better and reduce the impact of digital crime.

Analysis of Personal Information[edit]

Linked back to the collection of information about people, the analysis of personal data has become a massive field in recent years. There have been a rise in 'big data' companies which specialise in performing large scale analysis on bulk data which is collected from various sources. To imagine the scale of the data about you, you must consider the sources from which is originates. Every like on social media, every check in on your phone, location data collected by your phones, every web search, every page you access and more. This only scratches the surface of the sources.

Data has become a serious commodity which means that it is often sold between companies in order to make a profit. You can tend to see this happen when you suddenly get emails and communications from companies that you have never registered with. However, it is also used for good within governments to analyse crime hot spots and determine how best to protect citizens.

In science and engineering, there are many different applications such as DNA sequencing and analysing medical data for trends. There are more applications but you only need to be aware of some.

Layout, Colour Paradigms and the Impact of Character Sets[edit]

Web development has taken some sharp turns recently with the rise of material design, responsive design and new web technologies. This has led to more and less appreciation for the impact of layout and colour. There have been pushes to ensure that the layout of websites are intuitive for new users and to ensure that they are easy to use. Additionally, in some spaces there have been pushes towards ensure that websites are adaptive to people with various visual impairments or difficulties in viewing some colours such as high contrast modes and muted colour pallets. However, there are other impacts of colour within our societies that are sometimes overlooked which is the mental association with colour that can bias our views towards as site in some way. Basic examples include red being related to a warning or love, green to nature and blue to sorrow or water. However, these only apply to more western cultures. With the wide audience that a website can reach, there may need to be a consideration for the impact of colours between cultures as the meanings behind them can change as you move between countries and cultures. Some cultures, for example, regard some colours as unlucky on certain days which could discourage them from using a service if they were very superstitious.

Character sets have also been considered recently, again due to the wide audiences available. The translation of websites in other languages has become more frequent recently and this has required some basic considerations of how this could limit access. Some character sets will not contain the characters required for a specific language which could mean that a website may not be able to be delivered in a language which can makes sites more difficult to use for some. While this is not a large problem with the rise of Unicode character sets such as UTF-8, it still sometimes needs to be considered when writing applications.