Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 72 / MAY 1986 / PAGE 99

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Computer Ethics

Over the past two years I've been hearing more and more concern about ethics in this country-with special emphasis on the ethical considerations associated with computer technology. The debate ranges from concern about the displacement of human workers by robots to the issues surrounding the copying of commercial software.
    To take just one example, I recently spoke at a computing conference in which I was asked what my feelings were about the unauthorized copying and distribution of commercial software. In this particular case, the questioner was a teacher whose budget was very tight. My response was simply this: Unlike murder, which is only a state crime, the illicit copying of commercial software is a federal offense. I don't think much of murder, and I don't think much of those who deprive hard-working software companies of their just rewards for their efforts. While it might be interesting to study why otherwise law-abiding people are willing to even consider making copies of copyrighted material, that is a topic for another column.
    Many people think the new technologies of the information age require more than technical skills on the part of their users-they require some thought about the ethical consequences of these technologies, both from a personal and from a societal perspective. Someday we might see the following headlines in our daily papers:

    "Berserk Robot Kills Six at Auto Plant"
    "Computer Failure at Hospital Threatens Safety of Hundreds"

    If these disasters happened, the affected community would be outraged. But once the headlines died down, the long, drawn-out process of assessing responsibility would begin. Who was at fault? What could be done to keep this from happening again?

The Impact Of Technology
As we develop new information and automation technologies that our children will use as freely as we use paper and pencils, we should give some thought to preparing them for the complexities that arise-not just from the technology itself, but from the impact this technology can have on the people who make it, and especially on those who use it.
    With this thought in mind, I was pleased to come across a book entitled Computer Ethics by Thomas Kemnitz and Philip Vincent ($9.95 from Trillium Press, Box 921, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159). It's not a book that "teaches" ethical behavior; instead, it explores the complexities of the topic for youngsters in grades seven and up.
    The book consists of numerous hypothetical cases, each of which raises an interesting question for which the answer is not at all clear. Instead of presenting a point of view, the book presents a balanced view of both sides of the issue. Then it asks questions that stimulate readers to formulate their own opinions on the case and to present these opinions in a well-thoughtout manner. Here's an example:
    In this day and age, one often hears talk of "human rights." People talk of certain individual's rights being violated. Some individuals maintain rights are guaranteed because of a government's "constitution." Others maintain that all human beings are, or should be guaranteed, certain rights simply because they are human beings. A common error is committed when one speaks of rights without examining the philosophical background that constitutes or guarantees these rights. Should rights be guaranteed to people? Animals? Machines?...
    If cognitive abilities are the criteria for granting or having rights, then humans obviously have rights ... Should computers have rights? Are not computers capable of reasoning, analyzing and processing information? Are computers capable of enlightening us or other computers if they are so requested? As computer technology grows, many feel computers will be able to duplicate and exceed the thinking capabilities now dominated by man...
    What should be the basis for rights?
If The Headlines Happen
The activities that follow this case explore the issues that were raised in some depth, without expressing a particular position. For example: How do you distinguish between rights and privileges?
    In addition to raising interesting questions about the social consequences of technology, Computer Ethics stimulates critical thinking skills. Given the complexity of the world into which our children are growing, this skill is one that should be nurtured and developed from an early age.
    I hope we never see the kinds of headlines that would result if some of the hypothetical cases in Computer Ethics became real. But if we do, I hope even more that we as a society will be prepared to engage in the kind of debate that can not only resolve the issue at hand, but that can help make our world a safer and happier place in which to live.

Dr. Thornburg's most recent product is Calliope, a nonlinear idea processor for the Apple IIe, Ilc, and Macintosh computers. He welcomes letters from readers and can be reached in care of this magazine.