Don’t write evil algorithms

Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.

Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.

Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?

The algorithmic world

The basic insight is that the geosphere, ecosphere, anthroposphere and technosphere are getting deeply entwined, and algorithms are becoming a key force in regulating this global system.

The word “algorithm” (loosely defined here as a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations to reach a certain goal) may be the fashionable way of saying “software” right now, but it applies just as well to mathematical methods and formal institutions and social praxis. There is an algorithm for becoming a UK citizen. However, it is the algorithms in our technology that leverage our power at an accelerating pace. When technology can do something better than humans it usually does it far better, and it can also be copied endlessly or scaled up.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.