Ethics by design in a revolutionary age

Virgin Galactic

Article by Matt White, Icon Agency's UX Design Director

I was listening to the radio over the weekend, getting ready to take my daughter out for the day, when Richard Branson came on to promote his first trip into space aboard his Virgin Galactic spacecraft, claiming it’s not a new space battle of the billionaires, but a new frontier.

As I listened, Branson mentioned the industrialisation of space, that there were already 3,000 working satellites in orbit, and 1,200 of those satellites were launched over the last year. That’s over twice as many as the previous year. In 15 years we could have about 100,000 satellites.

The interviewer pondered the ethical question of space junk to which Branson admitted that some governments were launching missiles to see if they could hit the satellites (presumably for national security reasons) which would add missiles to the multiplying orbits of space debris.

Getting off track, he realigned the interview by talking about ‘purpose’ and the driving ‘principles’ of the mission, including the future of space industrialisation such as space data centres and microwave space solar energy. According to Branson, space has to be industrialised if 11 billion people are going to survive on this planet. We need to put our industries that are heating the world outside of our atmosphere. He emphasised the importance of industrialising space to the survival of our planet: from solving climate change to improving our daily lives. Even a farmer from the most remote part of the world will benefit from weather and climate data. Branson’s final statement was to let us know an industrial revolution is about to happen in space.

Industrial revolutions – including the first, second and third industrial revolutions – have shaped the world and changed societies with technological advancements and innovations. They’ve influenced every part of our lives: the way we communicate, our relationships and interactions, commerce, decisions, desires, health, knowledge, education, products, work, science, security, privacy, even how we experience the “real” world through augmentation.

The World Economic Forum has defined the current age as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, also dubbed Industry 4.0, Green New Deal and Build Back Better by some governments. This revolution brings together digital, physical and biological systems – covering wide-ranging fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. Industry 4.0, is affecting almost every industry worldwide and is rapidly transforming how businesses and governments operate. So where do ethics fit into this revolution?

The Ethics Centre says, “Revolutions can be opportunities for growth, but they can also open the floodgates to disaster. Previous revolutionary eras often spiralled out of control, betraying the ideas of their founders. Today, we have a rare and fleeting opportunity to seize responsibility for our future. Will we use technology to shape the kind of world humanity deserves? Or will we allow it to shape our decisions and thus, our future? Will technology serve our goals, or will we serve it?”

When user-centred design isn’t enough, an ethics framework can help

As designers, we follow a user-centred design methodology to derive purpose. Imagine you ran a solar energy business and you pride yourself on designing the most suitable installation for your client’s needs and budget. You spend time with your client to learn their behaviours, their electricity usage and how and when they use it. You find the right location on the property that receives the most sun without being intrusive. You design and install a solar panel grid perfect for their needs, and they now have renewable energy with a zero-carbon offset.

Your user-centred design is fit for its purpose. Job done. Then you take a moment to look at the supply chain of the technology used. You research the origins of the polysilicon used in the solar panels and find it was manufactured using non-environmental coal plants that supply cheap electricity, cheap labour or potentially forced labour. While it meets the purpose of user-centred design, does it meet the principles of ethical design your company wants to uphold?

One way you can judge ethical design decisions is through the creation of an ethical framework. Defining your business’ ‘Purpose’, ‘Values’ and ‘Principles’ can help. The thing with ethics is, the right moral decision can vary depending on your principles. Here is how one ethical framework might work:

VALUES. Knowing what’s ‘good’: The solar energy business owners and team believe solar energy is a force ‘good’ for combating climate change – making them affordable and accessible as a primary go-to renewable option. A financially and culturally rewarding business for all staff.

PRINCIPLES. Knowing what’s ‘right’: The business knows the origins of the polysilicon is not ideal, but knowing what the ‘right’ thing to do can be difficult and confronting. In this situation, the business may or may not achieve what is ‘good’ across all their values:

1. On the one hand, they might argue that it’s simply not ‘right’ to use this supplier at any cost, even risking the business. The only option is to use a more expensive manufacturer and risk pricing themselves out of the market or reducing the financial benefits for them and their team.

2. On the other hand, they might believe it’s ‘right’ to take a longer-term view of the industry they believe in and keep using that supplier until they find a financially sound alternative. Grow the business, promote renewable solar energy and look after their valued team.

Both hands uphold their values. However, defining their principles of what is ‘right’ can be subjective.

PURPOSE. Knowing our reason for being: Knowing your business values and principles helps create a well-defined purpose. Helping define and write your mission statement and bringing ethics to your vision won’t solve all ethical design problems but can help align business culture and behaviours as a foundation — a guiding north star — for incremental ethical choices your team makes along the way.

Who is ultimately responsible for ethical choices?

This is an open question. Some revolutionary technologies such as biotechnologies and AI need legislation and regulation to avoid risky and unethical use. For example, think about the AI used in Tesla’s self-driving cars. If your car encounters a situation where it needs to decide between crashing into a pedestrian or harming you by running into a wall, who decides who lives and dies? The AI developer, the car company, or the government responsible for legislating road use rules? And how do you enforce responsibility and ethical standards?

Collectively we all have a responsibility for the cumulative effects of the ethical choices we make. Change comes from both directions – from your company’s founders and visionaries setting an ethical framework, and grassroots action from across your teams.

We can all champion the values of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but if enough people leave the ethical decision making to someone else and fail to reflect on their choices – believing they’re only a small cog in a big machine – will only encourage unrestricted institutional wrongdoing.

As designers, we need to consider the ethical implications of the systems and platforms we are being paid to create. To quote The Ethics Centre again, “Technology mastery divorced from ethical restraint is the root of all tyranny.” That’s a heavy statement but it points to the growing concern many institutions have about ethics in a revolutionary age.

Like to know more about Industry 4.0 and ethical design?

The Ethics Centre –
Industry 4.0 –
History of Industrial Revolutions –
Former Virgin Galactic President Says An Industrial Revolution is About to Happen in Space –
Australian government and Industry 4.0 –
Austrade and Industry 4.0 –
United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals –

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