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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the editor

Technologies Do Have Ethics

Letters to the Editor, illustration


The Cerf's Up column "Social and Ethical Behavior in the Internet of Things" (Feb. 2017) by Francine Berman and Vinton G. Cerf was a welcome reminder of the importance of ethical issues involving sociotechnical systems in general and the Internet of Things in particular. Berman and Cerf did a great service giving them a high profile and thoughtful exposition. Here, we focus on their claim "Technologies have no ethics." Many computing professionals express this opinion, and we are confident many more believe it. But we think it is, as stated, a mistake, indeed a perilous mistake.

It is true that technologies do not "have ethics" in exactly the same way human beings have ethics. A human being is a carbon-based, biological entity, and any computer artifact (or other technological device) is fundamentally silicon-based and mechanical. Despite their differences, humans and technologies are interrelated and co-dependent. Society shapes technology, and technology shapes society. Technologies are the creations of humans; without humans, the technologies would not exist, and humans drive the creation of technology. Humans imbue their creations with moral significance, meaning their creations embody ethical decisions. Those ethics may be noble or they may be sketchy, but human ethics live inside every technology.


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