Every new technology has the potential for unintended consequences that impact our communities and institutions. Whilst technology has improved people’s lives in a myriad of ways, it is also responsible for negative impacts on individuals, communities, society and the environment. Companies ought consider their role by determining the greater implications of their technology and gain confidence from consumers that they’ve done so.
Responsible technology considers the social impact of technology and seeks to understand and minimise its potential unintended consequences. To create or support responsible technology, companies ought to:
- Look beyond the individual user and take into account technology's potential impact and consequences on society as a whole
- Share how value is created in a transparent and understandable way
- Ensure best practice in technology that accounts for real, messy humans
Foundations and Infrastructure
Too many internet services are currently insecure and/or unreliable, as well as poorly architected, designed and maintained. As the digital world starts to affect more of our lives, poor internet services become increasingly problematic. Insecure systems and technologies don’t just affect their users — they affect others too. For example, hacked webcams could form a botnet, or children’s data could be leaked from Internet-connected toys. Firms need to ensure their technology is safe and secure with good practices surrounding its use.
Technology can be frustrating: it can change frequently, demand to be upgraded, or stop working entirely. This state of affairs leads to greater insecurity, increased obsolescence, and disproportionate effects for poorer communities and individuals. This goes along with the rapid pace of development which means that investment in new things doesn’t last long. More importantly, though, we don’t have incentive models that resource digital infrastructure and maintenance of useful tools and systems. Huge services rely on tiny open source projects, maintained by handfuls of volunteer developers; everyone wants the benefits of well maintained desktop software, but few are willing to pay for it. Therefore, it is necessary to find ways to ensure our digital infrastructure is maintained and supported.
These concerns are especially pressing - although not limited to - the use of artificial intelligence (the focus of a separate R100 scorecard) and algorithms. Algorithms, or automated processes, are broadly used in all kinds of activity to inform and to make decisions, including by the public sector, companies, educational institutions. This isn’t particularly new. However, the amount of data available today is much greater, as entire firms have been established to collect data. Further, algorithms are much more powerful and machine learning systems are increasingly complex and opaque, which leads to these technologies have greater impact—for example, through predictive policing or autonomous vehicles. Responsible companies will seek to ensure algorithms and AI are accountable and impartial whilst acknowledging the limitations of what they provide and making them easier for users to understand.
Internet technologies operate within old systems that disenfranchise already vulnerable and marginalised people. A £1,000 smartphone will almost certainly have stronger encryption than a £50 smartphone; visions of autonomous car futures rarely include or account for people who can only afford older, second-hand cars. When things go wrong, well-off people are more likely to secure refunds and compensation. Responsible companies should seek to prevent safety, security and consumer protection from becoming luxury services.
Additionally, the Internet offers the potential for information to be freely available to all, and for everyone to create and share information, too. This creates incredible opportunities for learning, fulfilment, new ideas, innovation, and art. However, much information still isn’t available online; academic papers are locked behind paywalls, and government and public data isn’t available in many places. Other information is hard to find because search tools are weak or biased, because there’s much misinformation (accidental or deliberate), or because of censorship, manipulation, social bubbles and more. This makes it harder to access trustworthy, accurate information.
The ad- and data-fuelled Internet can be invasive, attention-seeking, manipulative, and pervasive. The way information is presented also often isn’t accessible to everyone; apps require new smartphones, websites aren’t very accessible, servers get turned off and their information lost. Responsible approaches to technology seek to make the most of the Internet’s potential while still making sure the right data gets to the right people at the right times.
Further, ever more interconnected systems are changing the value of data about us, and making that data harder to understand and control. The downsides of information sharing —when information reaches people whom you would rather not have it — are often hard to perceive, and also vary depending on who you are, your situation, the data in question, and how it’s being used by others. The long term impact of information being available , legally or otherwise , is very hard to assess. Responsible technology companies should seek to ensure appropriate levels and types of control, with protections and redress where needed, balanced with harnessing the reward and collective value of such data.
Overcoming these challenges requires firms to commit to develop and use responsible technology. This means innovation should consider people and planet. Responsible technologies recognise and respect everyone's dignity and rights, give people confidence and trust in their use and should never knowingly create or deepen existing inequalities.