The future rules

Ethics for the 4th Industrial Revolution

Artificial intelligence, Artificial life, Deep learning. Social media, and big data, open data, personal data and data mining – all of these are fundamental building blocks for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). They’re exciting. They are powerful, and they are making their presence felt everywhere, which is what makes many fearful – and that’s before we even get to cyber warfare, hypercomputation and social media.

If people are fearful, it’s because although they might be taken with the excitement and novelty of the ever more interesting technologies that manage our lives, amuse us, and extend our ability to communicate, they can sense the danger of misuse, unfairness, and abuse of power. There is a growing realisation that while things get easier to do, health improves, entertainment is more fun, and networks become more seductive, justice, fairness and respect need to rule in this new world.

And surely this rule should embrace an ethical impetus at every level, from the individual and societal, to the universal and global. In short, we need to map the moral foundations of tomorrow.

Threats and promises

Some threats to our equilibrium are obvious: Familiar jobs will disappear. Our privacy is being compromised. Terrorism will have the same access to our lives as we do. Drones might pounce out of the blue. And as man/woman and machine merge, your very DNA might be stolen, or you might simply eat too much of the abundance of food grown in mega laboratories. And will the robots that build and drive our cars, compose our music, write – not only our books, but our CVs – have a conscience? And if they can learn all the intimacies of the way we live, will they also learn to dream? How can we be sure that their dream for humanity coincides with ours, and indeed, that our dream is a beneficent one.

Reshaping the world

But there are less obvious threats, with questions attached to them that are just as important. Will the enabling technology on which we more and more depend, be available to all, equally? Will some societies exclude others? Will medical breakthroughs benefit everyone, or just the rich? Will wealth itself be protected and ever more unevenly distributed? Should certain technologies be developed at all? How do we control the end-use of the machine and artificial intelligence enhancements we make, in everything from neurological research to gene manipulation and exoskeletons that bestow superhuman physical strength? How do we protect and steward our planet, and all its bountiful natural resources for everyone’s benefit, everywhere?

What’s more – who is to be tasked with answering these questions? Tech companies? Governments? Civil bodies? Legal and justice systems? Global compacts and treaties? How will agreement and compliance with any proposed ethical framework be achieved?

These are critical questions for everyone, if we as individuals, our societies, and all the generations still to come, are truly to prosper and thrive in the midst of the new revolution that is at the same time taking shape and radically reshaping, the world in which we live.

It’s because of the urgency of these kinds of questions that the University of Johannesburg (UJ), as a leader of challenging and innovative academic thought on our continent, is continuing with its probing examination of 4IR and its implications. And that’s why, in the first Cloudebate of 2020, to be held on [date], UJ will be taking an in-depth look at the critical issue of the ethics that need to be developed to underpin the changes our world is experiencing.

Creating tomorrow

So, if you’re an educator, a student, a tech – or any – entrepreneur, a person who works in the law, in government or in finance, or if you’re simply someone with a passionate interest in contributing towards the new, in challenging received ideas, and above all, in the equitable, fair and just use of science and technology – then join UJ at the first Cloudebate of 2020 on [date] to air your views, and to listen to those of others.

Only ethics can ensure our humanity. And only informed debate, a moral commitment to our future on this planet and a rigorous examination of what we do, both as individuals and as societies, can help mould a workable, safe and ethical framework that works for everyone. And UJ, through its Cloudebate platform, is showing that it is ready to lead that conversation. In advancing our understanding and insights, as we change the world, and the world changes us, UJ is committed to its pursuit of leadership in creating tomorrow.