Since I came here I’ve been told to reflect on a topic that – | must admit – I had never had the chance to do so before. Surely, it did occur to talk about it in the philosophy class in the twelfth grade, but reflecting upon it or applying it – never. The topic is ethics and this report is actually meant to show my understanding of it. Ethics (or moral philosophy) is considered to be a “science” that tries to teach us, human beings with a conscience and moral understanding, based on some conventions also created by us, the difference between right and wrong.
However, it cannot completely define a sharp limit between them, since there aren’t any scientific factsthat can help it do so. Therefore the definition of “good” is entirely subjective and it is not surprising how it can differ from a person to another. There are three main (popular) philosophical theories that I believe to be relevant in showing its subjectivism. Utilitarianism, defined by John Stuart Mill, states that “the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility” (Wikipedia). The concept of utility refers not only to the quantity, but also to the quality of pleasure, while focusing on rules. Wikipedia).
Deontology (Immanuel Kant) is another moral theory that claims “the morality of an action is based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules” (Wikipedia). It also states that the action itself is more important than the consequences and that “people must act from duty” (Kant). If the first two definitions seem to contradict each other, there is another theory that shuts them both down, saying that there is no such thing as true morality. This theory is called nihilism. For some of the ones involved in the killer robot case, I would say they were advocates of the last of moral theories.
But leaving jokes aside, it is important to know that for major companies that involve a lot of people, plenty of work with interests and vanity being satisfied, there is something called “ethical framework” to keep them under control. An ethical framework (or professional ethics) is basically the criteria a company designs to help those who need to make a decision not to rely on what they think it’s appropriate to do, but what they are actually supposed to. The reason for its existence is actually what I’ve said earlier: people have different views on what it’s moral, thus a strict, precise guideline to respect is needed.
In order to analyze the killer robot case and what exactly has been violated, I will use ACM’s (Association for Computing Machinery) code of conduct. Being the world’s largest scientific and educational computing society (wikipedia) its code of conduct is just as elaborate. The framework starts with preamble which briefly describes what it contains. It begins with the phrase “Commitment to ethical professional conduct is expected of every member (voting members, associate members, and student members) of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). emphasizing that there are no exceptions made. It also states the number of imperatives (24) included “formulated as statements of personal responsibility” as well as some, but not all situations that employees might come across.
Moreover, it mentions the four main sections (“General Moral Imperatives”, “More Specific Professional Responsibilities”, “Organizational Leadership Imperatives”, “Compliance with the Code”) that will be discussed later on. The sections can also be accessed from the table of contents since they are links, as well as an extra section – section (“Acknowledgements”). Interestingly, the preamble also clearly enunciates that there is place for confusion but one shall reflect upon and find the answer- “It is understood that some words and phrases in a code of ethics are subject to varying interpretations, and that any ethical principle may conflict with other ethical principles in specific situations.
Questions related to ethical conflicts can best be answered by thoughtful consideration of fundamental principles, rather than reliance on detailed regulations. The first section “General Moral Imperatives” has eight distinct clauses which are preceded by the statement “As an ACM member I will… “, dealing with general moral issues like confidentiality, privacy, fairness, contributing to society and so on and so forth. The second section, however – “More Specific Professional Responsibilities” – describes in more detail, as the title suggests, the responsibilities of a computing professional. This section is meant to help distinguish the company’s field work from others’.
It also contains eight statements and starts with “As an ACM computing professional I will… “. The third section “Organizational Leadership Imperatives” consists of six clauses, preceded by the statement “As an ACM member and an organizational leader, I will… ” as well as a background note which provides further explanation on what makes an actual leader. The fourth and last section “Compliance with the Code” has only two statements that refer to acknowledging the purpose of the code and the consequences of its violation.
This framework will contribute as a reference to analyzing the list of decisions made by the members involved in the killer robot case. Although it is a fictional story, it is meant to show exactly the consequences of an unethical behavior. The killer robot case has violated most of the rules, starting from the first section in the ACM code of conduct. The code states that a company (its members) must “contribute to society and human-being” by “minimizing negative consequences of computing systems, including threats to health and safety”.
This rule was violated the moment Ray Johnson decided not to exhaustively test the program of the robot, although he knew there was something wrong with Randy Samuels’s code. This decision also violates the second point in the general moral imperatives section which is “avoid harm to others”. When Ray Johnson and Cindy Yardley decided to fake the tests and also hide this fact from a co-worker, Sam Reynolds, (“I don’t want Reynolds to know anything about this”) another rule (“be honest and trustworthy”) was broken.
In the ACM code of ethics it is clearly stated that “Without trust an organization cannot function effectively. The honest computing professional will not make deliberately false or deceptive claims about a system or a system design, but will instead provide full disclosure of all pertinent system limitations and problems”. Randy Samuels, the programmer who wrote the wrong code that triggered the error, broke the fifth rule which is also a law: violation of copyrights, patents, trade secrets and the terms of license agreement by copying part of the code (PACKSTAT 1-2-3).
In this category the contract is included, since the terms of agreement have been violated: Silicon Techtronics was supposed to send a safe robot to Cybernetics which obviously didn’t happen and also specifically train operators to learn all the robot’s operations and procedures. Other violations of rules include Waterson’s decision of monitoring e-mail communication between workers which means invading one’s privacy. He also threatened his employees with their dismissal if they did not meet a certain deadline.
This reated pressure and forced most of the unethical decisions. Sam Reynolds’s behavior also contributed to the malfunction of the whole company. Once Jan Anderson opposed Reynold’s idea of the waterfall model, he fired her. Ray Samuels had the same attitude when he discarded all the criticism he received for his inefficient program. They both defied the fourth responsibility a member of a computing company should have “Accept and provide appropriate professional review” which states that any member should accept and take into consideration a fellow member’s critique.
This is meant to improve one’s technical skills also referred to in the first rule “Strive to achieve the highest quality, effectiveness and dignity in both process and products of professional work”. It’s true that this last statement wasn’t completely broken since Robbie CX30 was their third try and an ambitious – maybe too ambitious – project (“gigantic step of sophistication”). But not fully understanding the requirements something at this level has might lead to such unpredictable dramatic consequences. The decisions made by the members involved in the case didn’t only break a computing company ethical rules.
Most of the companies, no matter what they are dealing with follow a similar set of rules, the only difference made (in the ACM case) by the second and third section. Other meaningful frameworks with similar topics discussed are owned by companies like CocaCola, Amazon or can be found in decision-making in health institutions. Coca-cola supports most of the ideas of ACM such as confidentiality, “privacy of employees, business partners and consumers”, honesty, protecting company assets. An obvious difference is the length of their code of conduct, and also the diversity of rules it contains.
There are a few that haven’t been met in the ACM code of ethics such as prohibition of bribery, of exceeding a certain level when receiving gifts from customers, of having political or social activity without the consent of the company. Amazon deals with the same problems as ACM including compliance with laws, rules, regulations, conflicts of interest (also including the acceptance of gifts), discrimination and harassing, health and safety, bribery, recordkeeping, financial integrity. What is more is their “periodic certification” aspect which involves certain employees who must periodically prove they agree with the company’s code of ethics.