Researching Responsible Innovation in ICT

Researching Responsible Innovation in ICT

With over 60% of British adults now accessing the internet1, issues surrounding the information that exists online about each of us have become increasingly complex. Almost 30 million people2 in the UK are signed up for Facebook for example, and routinely share information about themselves online via the site. Add to this the quantity of data stored in email accounts, on online stores and in other websites and it becomes apparent that our ‘digital footprints’ contain a vast amount of information about us, our personal affairs and how we live our lives.

This quantity of information is increasingly creating complex issues and questions surrounding the range of information stored, how it is kept and who has access to it. With legal frameworks struggling to keep up with the pace of new technologies and the mapping to our ethical values unclear, it becomes vital to understand the impact of how all this data is used.

News stories featuring public concern around the handling of personal data are frequently found in the media. In recent times, these have revolved around everything from Facebook’s privacy controls to the perceived intrusiveness of Google’s Streetview mapping service.

While many of these public concerns relate to questions of privacy and data protection, novel technology also leads to problems that we are fundamentally unfamiliar with and for which we have no precedent to orient us. These can be issues that we know from the offline world but that raise new problems through the use of ICT (information and communications technologies). A good example of this is the issue of digital inheritance. There are growing numbers of cases where it is unclear who owns someone’s online assets after their death or where it is unknown who should have access to a deceased’s data. Perhaps more importantly, it is even unclear if the individual has the moral or legal right to nominate who should own their assets after their death.

Other novel and potentially unforeseen issues may arise from emerging technologies. There are numerous examples of technologies that are currently being developed. Among these are applications of ambient intelligence in which technologies are invisibly embedded in the environment. This creates new possibilities for surveillance that the user may not even be aware of. A related type of technology is that of affective computing or emotional computing, where ICT registers and measures users’ emotions, and seeks to communicate with users on an emotional level by modelling users’ emotional states. Such technologies could well raise ethical concerns about the rights to privacy in relation to personal emotional states.

All these technologies can be hugely beneficial for many different users and purposes. At the same time they may cause ethical and moral problems. This raises the question of who is responsible for the consequences of such technologies, how responsibilities are translated into practical outcomes and how the developers of technology can discharge of their responsibilities.

To investigate and identify such issues a new project has been instigated by researchers at the Oxford University’s e-­‐Research Centre and the Centre for Computing & Social Responsibility (CCSR) at De Montfort University. Their research will aim to raise awareness and foster debate on these concerns, while working to provide guidance on how organisations can best manage the ethical dilemmas that come with changes that novel technologies and innovation may surface.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the study will initially look at the views on responsibility that researchers working on ICT hold. It will describe the current state of the art in the area and create a network for ICT researchers to exchange their understanding of these issues and the exchange of good practice.

Dr Marina Jirotka, Reader in Requirements Engineering at the University of Oxford explains: “The project aims to have broad impact across the whole of the ICT community, encompassing research, development and product management and support. This research will provide the first comprehensive summary of the current position regarding ethical challenges and their resolution within the ICT community.”

Additionally the funding will allow the creation of an ‘Observatory’ for responsible research and innovation, aiming to communicate the findings of the research across the entire ICT community. This is where the research can provide real value to society in general, encouraging the creation of products and services that include ethical and informational considerations as part of their design process rather than as a knee-­‐jerk reaction to public concern.

“The security, use and accessibility of the data that exists about each of us online affects us all,” reflects Dr Jirotka, “and helping to understand and shape the way that these technologies are developed is something that is in everyone’s best interests.”

Partners supporting the project include the Horizon Digital Economy Hub, Nottingham University; The SiDE Hub, Newcastle University; The dot.rural Hub Aberdeen University; The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), The Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS), The British Computer Society (BCS) and BT.

A unique aspect of this project is the artist in residence, Barbara Gorayska, who will take her inspiration for a collection of oil paintings and drawings from the issues and dilemmas revealed during the lifespan of the project. This will provide a visual dimension that captures and confronts the spectator with relevant ethical and moral realities within ICT that words may fail to express, reinforcing the current need for responsible technological innovation. 

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1: Source: Office of National Statistics
2: Source: ClickyMedia