NO, it's not maths and tech specialists who need Hippocratic Oath
Not (WAY) before others, that is.
“[such a] ethical pledge would commit scientists to think deeply about the possible applications of their work and compel them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society.”
Are we sure?
There is no doubt that, today “In mathematics, ethics is a bolt-on at best [when it should always be] at the forefront”. Heaven knows how many problems we already have because of geeky kids who (decided to) ignore how human beings need to function. But there are two big problems in a proposal like that.
The first is simply how western-centric, and therefore possibly dangerous, ineffective, prone to backfiring… such a position may be these days: math is global, and so is the internet. But “no harm to society” can mean very different things in different places:
“[Certain] hypothetical theories of the West are based on their ignorance… [our system] is simply beyond the understanding of Western countries”, recently said some government. “Do good” can be even more dangerous. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all that.
The main problem, however, is the targets
Training all “mathematicians, computer engineers and physicists” so they always put ethics first in their work is good. No, it’s overdue. The sooner, the better.
But it will be totally useless if the same kind of oath does not become mandatory for, as a minimum and from least to most important:
- all degrees in Economics
- all C-Suite positions, in any sector
- all lawmakers
Theoretically, the last category would not need such an oath, since they already take an oath to be nice, when they take office, on their Constitution or similar.
But the real problem is not, as the article says, that “researchers are building systems that gather and sell personal data, exploit human frailties, and take on life-or-death decisions”. The real problem is that there are laws that make it legal, and possibly worth huge bonuses, to actually abuse of all that stuff, both to governments and to corporations.
Exactly one week ago the world remembered the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. That bomb was designed by engineers, using theory developed by mathematicians and physicists. But it was politicians and soldiers who decided to drop it. Even if they had just shown the whole world what they could do.
Whether they were right or wrong, I don’t know, really. But that is another issue, that doesn’t change this one: the first who need to take extra oaths about ethics in technology and maths are not “mathematicians, computer engineers and physicists”. Dropping an oath, in whatever form, only on technical specialists just gives politicians a convenient scapegoat for both competences and responsibilities that they should be the first to have.
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