There are some very big questions around data, and unsurprisingly, legislation is struggling to keep up – not least because of how the internet has made data transportable across jurisdictions. GDPR, and the continued scrutiny of how data is used,in particular the power of the big data players such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, will be complex and probably take a few wrong turns along the way.

But as well as the macro view, there’s a much more localised one. What limits should individuals work to? How much is there an ethical imperative, not just a legal one?

This article gained great traction, in trying to put together a “Programmers oath”.  It includes the rather self-aggrandising quote:

“We programmers. We rule the world. We write the rules that make our society work.

“Think about it; and think about it carefully. Nothing happens in our society without software. Nothing.

“It’s certainly true that the Earth turns, the Sun rises, the rain falls, and the tides recede and advance without the aid of software. But in our society, virtually nothing happens without the involvement of some kind of computer program.

Without software: Phones don’t ring. Cars don’t start. Planes don’t fly. Bombs don’t explode. Ships don’t sail. Ovens don’t bake. Garage doors don’t open. Money doesn’t change hands. Electricity doesn’t get generated. And we can’t find our way to the store. Nothing happens without software. And what is software? Software is a set of rules.”

– Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin in “The Obligation of the Programmer

And this cartoon makes clear how easy it is for ethical boundaries to be transgressed. But It’s worth noting that often the fall isn’t obvious. Instead individuals might slowly find they’ve, incrementally,  got somewhere which they never would have intended. In fundraising, there’s an obvious example with the use of reciprocal data – no one quite knows when, but we clearly found ourselves somewhere that didn’t stack up. It’s not just fundraising – I don’t know whether journalists know when they crossed the line that eventually led to hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, or politicians thinking that claiming expenses for a duck island was okay.

At UpliftingData, we want to use data for good. As such we are always on the look out for ethical guidance, as well as traps. But there is a trap in this well meaning manifesto. Just as the ten commandments have different importance, so do these oaths.

  • I will not produce harmful code.

  • I will do all that I can to keep the productivity of myself, and others, as high as possible. I will do nothing that decreases that productivity.

  • I will never stop learning and improving my craft.

These are very different ethical rules. The first is a duty to others,and pretty unambiguous. The second a duty to the team – although it’s not clear that it’s unambiguous. The third is really an exhortation to oneself. But there is no ethical element to it.

The first is so much more important than the others. Like all things in life, the key to strategies, or rulesets, is to choose wisely, not to include everything. It’s too easy to dilute what matters because every trivial idea shares space with it.

As AI moves data and robots closer, I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics.

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Even this, maybe unsurprisingly, 75 years on, is now subject to increased scrutiny. This fact should be a salutary lesson – rules are there to be updated when the time comes.

The simple truth is that data is powerful and transformative on a massive scale. The precise scope of that transformation is not yet clear to us. We must be alert to the consequences, both known and unexpected. We must not do harm. Or as google once put it “Do no evil”. Little else matters, and whether we

“will continuously ensure that others can cover for me, and that I can cover for them.”

doesn’t deserve to be on the same page.