Computing Applications Computing ethics

Ethics Viewpoints Efficacies

Seeking answers to ethical concerns.
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In 2008, I accepted the ACM editors’ invitation to solicit manuscripts for Communications‘ Computing Ethics column. This is the tenth installment published since the inception of the column, which has featured a variety of authors covering a wide range of ethical issues—from ethics and robotics in civilian and military applications, to ethics and smart grid technology, to the question of whether software engineering qualifies as engineering. But I have not heard much from the readers of the column, which leads me to wonder whether these questions are those with salience to ACM members.

One approach to this question was to examine the ACM website. There, the members who were selected for profiles on the home page indicated for me an emphasis in the organization on achievement in industry. This emphasis prompts me to ask whether members might be less interested in the ethics of research and development and more interested in ethics questions that arise in practice.

This distinction does not seem so important looking at the section of the ACM website devoted to the association’s history. The history indicates rapid post World War II growth from its founding as the Eastern Association for Computing Machinery in fall, 1947; dropping “Eastern” from the name in 1948; and instituting a constitution in 1949. In the initial meeting, the publicity stated that the purpose of the association “would be to advance the science, development, construction, and application of the new machinery for computing, reasoning, and other handling of information.” Presently, as the website indicates, the ACM constitution summarizes its purview as that of “an international scientific and educational organization dedicated to advancing the art, science, engineering, and application of information technology, serving both professional and public interests by fostering the open interchange of information and by promoting the highest professional and ethical standards.”

This information is found in the history section of the site, which has less visibility than does the home page itself, and it is likely that site visitors view the history section distinctly less often than they do other sections of the site. It is heartening to see the recognition of ethics in the last version of the constitution. Nonetheless, the emphasis on IT advancement indicates perhaps where the priorities of ACM members are. This is neither surprising nor inappropriate; yet, it says to me that the heart of the organization and its members lies with innovation itself, rather than the ethics of innovation.

It also suggests to me that recognizing this fondness may be inseparable from finding examples and issues of ethics that resonate with the members. Meeting this criterion means the discussion needs to raise concerns that arise in daily practice or at least over the course of a project. Perhaps they need to be more realistic than speculative and capture the different interests at stake in the activity and its resolution. Sometimes they could be quite brief and provide a specific piece of advice; other times they would raise a series of issues and challenges that will take time to play out and resolve. Are these appropriate criteria? Do they capture members’ priorities?

The Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the National Academy of Engineering, which I direct, manages the Online Ethics Center (http://onlineethics.org). It has a large selection of cases, many with ethics commentaries, and I believe that more than a few of them speak to the issues that IT scientists and engineers face often. I am going to use this column to point readers to a few, and ask you whether these cases and commentaries, where there are comments, are of significance to you and portray phenomena that you recognize as those you or colleagues face. If you have other cases (suitably anonymized) that you wish to share, the OEC will consider publishing them and, as possible, finding people to comment on them. You can contact me with ideas, cases, or other relevant information at rhollander@nae.edu.

Online Ethics Center cases take numerous forms. Some are quite detailed, with sections of description as well as elaborate commentary. Some are quite short with brief commentaries. A longstanding, extensive case is that of “The Killer Robot” by Richard G. Epstein, which is the tale of software gone rogue in a medical application. See http://www.onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases/killer-robot.aspx. A more recent short case involves a difficulty an engineer was having figuring out his obligations to former and new employers; called “Obligation to Client or Employer,” this case is not specific to IT engineering but it raises questions pertinent to IT engineers and the commentaries provide good advice; see http://onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases/Obligation.aspx.

Having things turn out okay does not entail the conclusion that the actions taken were ethically appropriate.

The OEC recently posted a case titled “Occidental Engineering.” I think it has a lot to offer, both because it describes a not infrequent kind of problem and demonstrates what I believe is an important aspect of ethics—that having things turn out okay does not entail the conclusion that the actions taken were ethically appropriate. It also contains useful commentary from the author about the ethical dimensions of the case and how to teach it. One thing it does not have is a set of quantitative problems that might be relevant to engineering students considering the case; if readers have relevant suggestions for, or can develop, problem sets for this or similar problems that could be posted, please let me know.

Here is a brief summary of the case: A software engineer in the aerospace division of Occidental Engineering is working on a contract from the FAA that the company had “lowballed” in order to beat out competitors and garner much needed business. But the company therefore had to underfund and understaff the project. A version of the prototype (for a next generation air traffic control system) needs to be delivered, fully certified for system integration and test, in three days, but that does not leave enough time for the engineer and his team to resolve a little problem before the delivery date—the problem being that when there are too many aircraft in the system, it will sometimes lose track of one or more of them. The team has traced the problem to a subtle error in memory allocation and reuse. They are confident that they can fix it, but it will take a month or more.

The government has developed a new, get-tough policy on missed deadlines and cost overruns, and Occidental is afraid that if they miss this deadline, they would be fined and lose the remainder of the prototype contract; and they might not be allowed to bid on the contract for the full system resulting in thousands of lost jobs. They consider and reject the idea of a quick patch. Their management decides they should deliver the software as-is, noting that FAA testing plans will include an active backup system when they do get to live tests, and they will do those only at a small airport. They will not overload the system. After that they request changes, and even if not, the company can provide an updated version of the program with the bug fix. If they see the problem, the company can claim it was a random occurrence. The important thing is no one is in any danger, so the system can be certified as safe, for the use to which it will be put.

In the end the engineer signs off; the testing works out okay; the problem is solved; and the company gets much needed business. The lead engineer takes early retirement once the prototype project is finished, in order to write a book on software testing. He feels the book should have a chapter on ethics, but he can never bring himself to write it.

The questions the author asks at the end of the case are, “What do you think about the engineer’s decision? Was it ethical?” How would you answer, and what are your justifications for your answers, particularly your answer to the second question? Think about your answers, and then you might want to visit the site and review the case and commentary. Michael McFarland, S.J., a computer scientist and the former president of College of the Holy Cross, was a visiting scholar at the Markkula Ethics Center. He wrote the case and posted it to that center’s site in June, 2012. He provides an extensive ethics tutorial with it. You can find the case and commentary, with a link to the Markkula site, at http://onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases/OccidentalEng.aspx.

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UF1 Figure. Excerpt from the ACM Code of Ethics.

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