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What are some new, unique and interesting ethical/philosophical/sociological issues that are starting to present themselves as Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) advance?

Are there any intriguing issues related directly to a specific ICT?

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To get the ball rolling, here are some issues for consideration:

  1. Employment Vs Productivity: Technology enables significant increases in productivity, allowing a given demand for goods and services to be met with reduced human resources. For example: modern car assembly-lines use more robots and less people than in the past. This effect directly reduces levels of employment in the population. For those that are still employed it generally increases the separation of workers from the tangible product of their labour, believed to be responsible for a decline in job-satisfaction.
  2. Delegation of Power to Systems: This is not an new issue: civilised societies rely on the creation of rules, guidelines and systems. These include constitutions, laws, conventions, government and corporate policies, etiquette and social norms. When rules are followed or blindly enforced, individual rights are sometimes violated. ICT enables systems of rules to be increasingly automated as corporations and governments are driven to improve efficiency. Where I live increasing numbers of road intersections are equipped with combination speed & red-light cameras, and traffic infringement notices are issued automatically and posted to vehicle owners. Often such automated systems fail or produce undesirable results. Increasingly people allow themselves to be governed by systems that lack flexibility or human discretion.
  3. Equity of Access: Some people will inevitably have better access to ICT education, training and resources than others. Since access to ICT and requisite knowledge and skills creates great opportunity, those without will be at a great disadvantage in future life.
  4. Globalisation: ICT enables globalisation of labour with respect to knowledge-workers. This encourages technology jobs to migrate from high-cost to low-cost locations. It allows long-established businesses to be wiped out by competition from small Internet start-ups. This may result in wealth being distributed more evenly around the world, although it may also create new concentrations of wealth in the owners of the new businesses.
  5. Military Technology: Cruise-missiles and drone-strikes are now proven technology. What are the legality and ethics of a non-military government bureaucrat initiating such a remote strike against a suspected terrorist meeting in a suburban house somewhere in a foreign state? Is a robot army conquering a human opposition the ultimate victory or a terrible tragedy?
  6. Augmented Humans: A human who relies heavily on their smartphone for everyday behaviour can be considered as part of a single human-device entity. Whether the smartphone hardware is located in your pocket, hand or within your body makes no difference. Alter or disable the smartphone and the capability of the human-device entity to function is crippled. In this way we can consider this an Augmented Human. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is emerging as a popular trend for office-workers. However it is conceivable for an employer to want to hire a new employee as a human-device package. If a device fails and results in a crime (e.g. malfunctioning car cruise-control) or other damage, how much is the human operator responsible versus the designer/manufacturer/maintainer of the device?
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The most important ethical issue, the most pressing, is the ethics of the concept of "intellectual property", meaning patents, copyrights, and trademarks, in an age where information has essentially zero cost of transmission and dissemination, and where information and algorithms not of our own construction, biological information, is discovered by private and public entities.

In the past era of print media and mass media, copyrights were required to ensure that publishers could operate in the black. During the French revolution, copyright was briefly abolished, but soon restored, as it was clear that a mechanism was required to ensure that publishers would be protected from plagiarism. The notion of patents was similarly constructed, to fascilitate the description of new inventions, and they were effective well into the latter part of the 20th century.

But with modern information technology, both systems are largely anachronistic, and have been responsible for major setbacks.

  • Software copyright: This has been a scourge of the computer industry, single handedly slain with Richard Stallman's GPL. Software copyright, as championed by Gates and Wolfram essentially wiped out software for a decade (1980-1994), and only the development of GNU/Linux allowed the art of programming to be reborn.
  • Software patents: I consider these to be ethically repugnant. The idea of patenting algorithms is contrary to common sense and to free software principles.
  • Gene patents: the concept of patenting molecules was extended to patents on genes, with absurd results. There is a single corporation that holds a patent on interferon, something which, needless to say, they did not develop. The prior art in this case is at least 60,000,000 years old.

More generally, copyrights on music, art, literature, are all holding back mass dissemination of works. It is especially pernicious in the case of scientific publishing, where the authors would benefit massively from public release, and the publishers, who are already gouging universities, have no moral claim on the content, since they serve no useful role anymore.

The ethical issue is pressing. In this, I think Richard Stallman is the only person who consistently makes sense. Within free software, there is always the issue of artistic control, and Larry Wall has shown the way here.

The young people seem to have already taken matters into their own hands, and have defacto abolished copyright law. It is difficult to see how the same can be done for patent law, which has become an equally pernicious thorn in the side of progress.

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