Starting the Ethics Discussion in Our Community

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Starting the Ethics Discussion in Our Community

By: 
Athina Petropulu

IEEE members are bound by the IEEE Code of Ethics [1]. By becoming IEEE members, we commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct. We agree to uphold the practices of ethical design and sustainable development; protect the privacy of others; and promptly disclose factors that might endanger the public or the environment. We strive to improve the public understanding of the implications of technology. We also seek to avoid conflicts of interest; accept honest criticism of technical work; and treat all persons fairly independent of race, religion, gender, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

How many have actually read the IEEE Code of Ethics? Further, is the existence of a code of ethics sufficient to avoid negative impacts to our lives from the technologies we develop?

A recurring story nowadays is that a technology is introduced; its popularity grows fast; it reaches a point where it has permeated our lives; and then, society realizes what kinds of problems that technology may create. When dealing with societal impact as an afterthought, it is often too late to introduce meaningful fixes.

Starting from school, we have learned to focus on the technical part of the idea and not on the problems the idea can lead to down the road. The technical details are sufficient to publish an article or file for a patent, and ultimately, deploy a product. It is only recently that in engineering schools located in the United States, we started looking into ethical constraints, i.e., the impact of a technology on the environment in terms of waste produced; the power required for development or for operation and safety of users; and in general, the impact to the job market and society in general. In the United States, these considerations are studied in the senior year of college, during the capstone design project, when it may be too late for students to appreciate the importance of those issues.

As researchers and practitioners, we continue on the same path. Most do recognize the importance of ethics and ethical behavior, but when we publish or put out a product, we do not really think about whether we may be in violation of ethics principles. Of course, doing the check is not always straightforward.

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