Evolution of ICT ethics

In this blogpost, I like to highlight the history of ethics relating to ICT in order to highlight their importance during the design and development of technologies. Also, I briefly mentioned about the ethical issues of AI and ethical guidelines of AI developed by three Finnish companies. The detailed literature review and empirical study can be referred in my Master’s thesis. Computer and information ethics are expanding with new applied ethics theories such as digital ethics, ethics in artificial agents, AI ethics as a result of the new technological advancements (Allen and Roberts, 2010).  The continuous growth of AI applications and AI systems can have significant impact on the society which demands ethical check in the early stages of AI design and development. The following figure represents the timeline of evolution in computer and information ethics (This literature study was done as a part of my master’s thesis).

Evolution of computer and information ethics (Master’s thesis)

In the early 1940s, Norbert Weiner during World War II introduced a new research theme called cybernetics which emerged as a science of information feedback systems (Iqbal and Beigh, 2017; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001). Various ethical insights on technology which we now term as information and computer technology were developed. In mid-1970s, Walter Maner coined the term computer ethics and defined it as a new field of study as the issues raised around computers were persistent (Iqbal and Beigh, 2017; Spinello, 2012). In mid-1980s James Moor’s path changing article ‘What is computer ethics?’ was published. Moor included consideration of human values with ethical issues relating to computers (Iqbal and Beigh, 2017).

After the information revolution, the ICT field developed rapidly with various inventions (Floridi, 2001). As the inventions like telephone, camera, computers, internet, email, broadband, wireless networks, etc. have become a part of our everyday life, various issues surfaced with these ICT developments. Spams, challenges in censorship, privacy issues, consumer backlash, hacking, malware, cybercrimes, and cyber-attacks are some issues relating to these ICT (Quinn, 2014). Computer and information ethics were adopted during the development of new technologies to identify the potential issues and to curb those risks (Quinn, 2014).

Luciano Floridi’s ‘information ethics’ which emerged as new computer ethics theory occurred in the late 1990s and the early 2000s (Iqbal and Beigh, 2017). Floridi’s information ethics is spun around various traditional ethics theories and aimed to avoid conflicts between those theories (Spinello, 2012). It has to be emphasized that from late 1990s the term ‘computer ethics’ and ‘information ethics’ are almost used interchangeably or referred as ‘Computer and Information ethics’ though they were two separate theories in the past (Spinello, 2012). The early 2000s witnessed the rise of ethics issues in human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence.

In the early 2010s Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2011) published their study ‘Ethics of Artificial Intelligence’ concentrating on the ethical considerations relating to the autonomous systems. The need for safety of these AI technologies and moral status of these intelligent machines are highlighted. From mid-2010s, digital ethics is one of the key topics and the shift of ICT from business supplementary to business enabler portray the development of ICT technologies. The ethical debate raised in the society as the consequence of intentional or unintentional misuse of technologies is the driving factor to adopt digital ethics (Shetty, 2017). In 2017, Digital Ethics Lab led by Luciano Floridi was launched by Oxford Internet Institute. It focused on bringing positive impact with digital innovations and eliminate risks of it from the society.

The common ethical issues that arisen because of the use of AI or autonomous systems are in the following areas: anonymity, autonomy, fairness, privacy, security, safety, transparency, and trust. In my Master’s thesis, I studied the ethical guidelines of AI developed in three Finnish companies. The companies of my study are of different domains such as retail, banking, and consultancy. The results of the interviews and documents analysis indicated that companies developed ethical guidelines to tackle the ethical issues of AI that are prevalent. The ethical guidelines developed by the companies are categorised as follows: accountability, correctness, fairness, privacy & safety, security, responsibility, sustainability, transparency (incl. openness and explainability), and trust. The research methodology used and detailed description about the AI ethical guidelines of the case study companies can be found here: https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/bitstream/handle/123456789/40895/master_Balasubramaniam_Nagadivya_2019.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


Allen, P.J. and Roberts, L.D. (2010), “The Ethics of Outsourcing Online Survey Research,” International Journal of Technoethics, Vol. 1, no.3, pp. 35-48.

Bostrom, N. and Yudkowsky, E. (2011), The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, Cambridge Handbook of Artificial Intelligence, Cambridge University Press.

Iqbal, J. and Beigh, B.M. (2017), “Computer Ethics from Obscure to Ubiquitous,” International Journal of Advance Research in Computer Science, Vol.8, no.3, pp.983-990.

Shetty, S. (2017), “Getting Digital Ethics Right,”. [Online] Available: https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/getting-digital-ethics-right/

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001), “Computer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview,”. [Online] Available: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2001/entries/ethics-computer/

Spinello, R. (2012) “Information and Computer Ethics: A brief history,” Journal of Information Ethics, Vol.21, no.2, pp. 17-32.

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