What does 2019 have in store for the technology industry? Moshe Vardi, the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering, a professor of computer science and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, said many believe the tech industry is facing an ethical crisis, but he argues that label is far too narrow.
“What we are currently facing is not an ethical crisis, it is a public policy crisis,” he said. “Ethics is about individual decisions, while public policy is about societal decisions.”
Vardi said he and many of his colleagues, who “truly believe that computing yields tremendous societal benefits,” now realize it also brings significant problems such as disinformation, labor polarization and smartphone addiction. He likens tech’s expansion to the invention of the automobile and the issues following its introduction to society.
“Consider the Ford Model T, the first mass-produced and mass-consumed automobile,” Vardi said. “It went into production in 1908 and started the automobile age. But with it came automobile crashes, which today kill annually more than 1,000,000 people. But the fatality rate has been going down for the past 100-plus years.”
Vardi said the number of traffic deaths was reduced with reforms like improving the safety of roads and automobiles, licensing drivers and passing laws against drunk driving.
“The solution to automobile crashes is not ethics training for drivers, but public policy, which has made transportation safety a public priority,” Vardi said.
The same should be done for tech, Vardi argues.
“If society finds aspects of technology unacceptable — including companies’ collection of online data for business purposes — then the remedy is public policy, in the form of laws and regulations, rather than an ethics outrage,” he said.
Vardi admits that public policy is hard, and although regulation can stifle some innovations, it can inspire others.
“Regulation can encourage innovation,” he said. “There is no question that automobile regulation increased automobile safety and fuel efficiency, for example. Regulation must be wielded carefully.”
Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice University