Balancing speed, innovation, and ethics

Balancing speed, innovation, and ethics

by Sara Holoubek

Imagine a deadly problem — one that kills over 37,000 Americans each year. Now imagine a solution — a new technology that could drastically reduce those deaths and maybe even improve quality of life in other meaningful ways.

The solution is barely more than a hypothesis right now. If it were a drug, it might be in a pre-trial state of development. When it comes to therapeutics, the FDA has established the tolerable level of risk, a process for testing in labs and on humans, and the acceptable amount of time for evaluation and approval.

But we’re not talking about drugs and clinical trials. We’re talking about emerging technology.

Earlier this year, a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona, and experts suggest the deadly collision was precisely the kind of accident that autonomous vehicles are intended to prevent.

We’ve been talking about tech ethics for a while. When Uber’s accident made headlines — the same week we were first hearing about Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook scandal — we asked important questions about innovation and unintended consequences. The response on LinkedIn surprised us, exposing the widespread assumption that ethics stands in the way of progress and innovation. Our own network couldn’t even agree on where to place autonomous vehicles in this drug development analogy — are self-driving cars akin to molecules in a lab, or are they ready for a phase II trial? In the race to market, is Waymo taking a more mindful approach to vehicle development that will eventually win out?

We’re not necessarily suggesting that self-driving cars be tested for 30 years; many people would like to see faster development and approval of life-saving therapeutics. However, as a society, we’ve not had an opportunity to determine the acceptable risk thresholds for robots — which may explain why a majority of Americans say they would refuse to ride in a driverless car.

Tech ethics has a marketing problem. But we believe it’s possible to be pro-tech and pro-ethics. That’s why we’re bringing this important conversation to two events. At the Northside Innovation Festival, I’ll join David Ryan Polgar, Laura Norén, and Natalie Evans Harris to discuss tech ethics and the the future of work in a conversation designed to spark the ethical imagination. And at Personal Democracy Forum, I’ll facilitate a workshop designed to help people incorporate ethical decision-making into their work with data.

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Photo by why kei on Unsplash.