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The Ethical Quest For A Smart Society

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Digitalization and its advancements have made us all dream of an augmented, efficient, data-driven, and sustainable society. A smart society where we all thrive in an urban setting that is centered around individual needs. A life where we act in a thoughtful and environmentally friendly manner.

Such an image is more or less the perception shared by the majority, in which technology blends seamlessly with the urban landscape. Inevitably, it presents a strong potential for a civilization filled with prosperous, happier people, promoting more sustainability and a smarter exploitation of our resources.

Balancing ethics and technology in a smart society

Amidst this digital era, we have for some time now idealized technology’s new opportunities and complex solutions (e.g. IoT and AI) and attempted to apply these to further enhance our daily life. However, even though automation can be used to develop the infrastructure of cities and numerous other things, the clashing of technology and man induces ethical questions. Specifically, AI calls for thorough consideration and addressing of the ethical matters involved, as we all of a sudden find technology controlling machines that coincidentally may cause people harm.

Today, we believe all problems can be solved with the use of technology, unfortunately making us forget to reflect on the consequences, i.e. the ethics. This is exemplified by the use of mass surveillance and its influence on human conduct, which provokes a societal debate of ethics in regard to the technology’s omnipresence. Questions must be raised to identify how politicians and leaders can apply such technology without compromising society and the people.

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My 5 pieces of advice

Earlier this year, I participated in Stavanger’s conference on smart cities; Nordic Edge, to speak on this exact matter, where I purposefully questioned the current state of ethics in technology aimed to create a stir among the attending leaders. Overall, I provided them with five main pieces of advice in our pursuit towards an ethical society. These are:

  1. Understand surveillance capitalism: Be aware of the technological and financial drivers to avoid societal and commercial conflicts of interest – data is of value to both society and suppliers yet derives from two different business models.
  2. Exploit the benefit of the doubt: Develop a data-ethical culture to mitigate the challenge of constantly preparing for the unknown that data ethics bring.
  3. Understand the specific issues of AI ethics: AI comprises complex technological fields that are difficult to grasp, but we must attempt to avoid bias and create transparency among the applied algorithms
  4. Recognize technology’s limitations: In a society increasingly affected by algorithmic autonomy, we think of technology as infallible, nonetheless, we must acknowledge algorithms to not always be superior to human capabilities.
  5. Design for the people: The idea of a smart city originated from a utilitarian perspective centered around technology, in which the most efficient solutions are to optimize and augment society. This may conflict with our ethical boundaries, prompting us to instead start prioritizing the people. Therefore, design thinking techniques should be implemented in the standard requirements of any organization dealing with smart cities.

Let’s consider the consequences of technological ubiquity

In this digitalized world, people frown upon opinions that oppose advancement and exploitation of technology. Still, we must address the ethical aspects and consequences of its use. It is not certain that an increase in automation, surveillance and number of algorithms will help us make the right decisions. Perhaps it will trigger the contrary; a greater feeling of insecurity and far less human contact may cause a declining quality of life for the individual. Thus, we need to determine what our first priority is; smart societies or ethical societies? I am in favor of the ethical.

Executive Innovation Architect

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