Historically, we’ve done a terrible job at using new technologies to the advantage of all. The scientific revolution of the 16th century has also brought to us colonisation, slavery, and inequalities where a selected few built fortunes by stealing from the masses. Today, in the digital age, we find ourselves at the beginning of another technical revolution. That’s why Deepak Bansal, an experienced professional at the intersection of technology, business and humanity, urges us to raise critical questions and demand answers.
As a philosopher, amongst many things, Deepak looks to the past for a guide on what not to do. «Historically, the masses paid for the fortunes the few built. Sometimes with their lives.», Deepak says. «It doesn’t have to be this way. This is our chance to do it better». During our conversations he stressed the importance of citizen participation, asking the right questions and reiterated that it’s not too late to create a digital space that serves us all.
On your website you mention that you stand at the intersection of technology, business and humanity. Can you say a little more about that intersection and what digital ethics mean to you?
Sure. Let me tell you how I ended up there in the first place: I have three Masters Degrees – an MBA, a Masters Degree in Engineering and one in Philosophy. I got that in San Francisco after I hit some sort of existential crisis and started looking for more meaning in my life.
San Francisco is like Florence during the renaissance period. It is bustling with creativity, innovation, and desire to take the world to the next level of evolution. However, it is also a place where people are playing ‘God’ and changing the world not knowing, sometimes not caring, in which direction their work will take us. That’s when I started asking myself, ‘what should we do?’ instead of ‘what can we do?’. The problems we have today are often not of technological nature anymore, they are philosophical questions.
What I do is look at the questions digitalisation raises today from a cross sectional approach and search answers from different viewpoints.
What are some examples of questions we need to ask?
‘Does this product or service make life better for all of us?’ is a good one to start with. And keep in mind: a good question doesn’t necessarily lead to answers. A good question leads to more questions, and questions bring the right people together.
In philosophy there’s the famous trolley problem: A hypothetical scenario in which you have the power to change the course of a runaway trolley – killing one or several people in each scenario. Today with self-driving cars the trolley problem is no longer hypothetical. We actually need to ask ourselves these questions and program the answers into the products we’re building.
Traffic accidents are amongst the leading causes of death. There is no doubt that self-driving cars can drastically lower that number. But how do we program self-driving cars to navigate the situations mentioned above? And who is then responsible for the deaths of innocent people? How will they be made liable?
The philosophical questions of the past need an immediate answer, as they now build the foundations of algorithms today.
This sounds great but we as citizens are rarely at the table when new products and services are developed. How do we make our voices heard?
If you don’t agree with a company’s data policy there are many ways to speak up. A very simple way to make your voice heard is by giving feedback. Send an email to customer service or leave a google review. We as users can create demand. Just look at WhatsApp, for example. So many users moved to secure alternatives, forcing the company to change how they use data. We are not powerless. If we demand change, the market will follow.
What advice would you give to a company that has not yet felt the growing distrust of its clients and customers?
The people of Switzerland are highly educated, question a lot and demand to know how their data is being used. So data security and transparency is not a competitive advantage but a minimum requirement. And still, companies can build that trust by doing three simple things:
One: Publicly declare what data you collect, how you use it and how you protect it. Put it on your website in simple words, almost like a check-list. The people want to know. Two: Get an external source to verify that what you say you do is actually true. This can look like an AI Board of experts or an audit like the Swiss Digital Trust Label. Three: Think outside the box. Ask yourself, How can I turn this mistrust into a competitive advantage for us?. Go be creative! There are endless possibilities in how you can turn privacy into a huge asset for your company.
Even though the Swiss are highly educated, the topic of data is complex and abstract. It’s definitely not something the average citizen wants to spend their weekends thinking about. How do you convey the importance of digital ethics to the general public?
For the first time in history, technology is not separate from us anymore. We are evolving with technology, not separately from it. Just look at our relationship with our phones. We outsource so much of our memory on this little thing. The distinction between human and machine will only become more opaque. So how can we use technology consciously?
I want everyone to get involved in this conversation. Everyone. We need to educate, moderate a public discussion and leave room for debate. To make the abstract tangible, we need to turn to storytelling.
I often tell the cautionary tale of my niece. She had just graduated and gotten her first job. After receiving her first paycheck, she wanted to treat herself to a nice pair of headphones and ordered them online. Turns out the website she visited wasn’t trustworthy, her account was hacked and within moments her entire bank balance dropped to zero. Her story could become ours at any given time. I want people like her to speak up, educate others and uncover malpractices. Again: If we demand change, the market has no choice but to follow.
Deepak Bansal is a Founder & MD at Meaning Quotient - MQ, a learning organization to put meaning in our actions and decisions. He is also an instructor of the Digital Ethics by Design course at ZHAW and works with organizations to raise awareness on the topic. You can find more about him and his work on his website: mq-learning.com/digitalethics