Can We Program Morality? 8 Mind-Bending Questions For Our Generation


As humanity and technology continue to become intertwined to a point of near unification, the Web Summit in Lisbon this past week explored the implications across a variety of industries. Held at the expansive MEO Stadium, the Dublin-born event attracted nearly 60,000 attendees from more than 170 countries in search of inspiration, connections and insights, all of which were available in great order.

Among the event's headliners were former Presidential candidate, Al Gore; former US Olympians Hope Solo and Caitlyn Jenner, Microsoft President, Brad Smith; and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who delivered a message from the International Space Station. Among the myriad topics covered by the 1,200 speakers, the question of technotopia and ethical tech were standouts.

“Technologists are playing one of the key roles of all," said Gore in his impassioned keynote speech to a packed arena about climate control. “You- especially those of you who are building tech companies- can bring higher levels of efficiency and rationality. Your generation wants to be a part of productive enterprises that make good money, yes, but also move us in the right direction."

Ethics were a big topic, yes, but also on the table at the three day event was the encroachment of technology on human life, and the jury's still out on whether we're headed in the right direction. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity," surprise guest Stephen Hawking told revelers at the Web Summit's Opening Night. Hawking's comment belies the questions plaguing so many technologists today; is it fully possible to ensure that smart systems won't develop a will of their own? Is the fierce quest of building automated intelligence going to benefit of humanity? Is it ethical? And ultimately, is tech working for us or are we working for tech?

“The things we build now will have a profound impact later on."

- Ross Mason

The question of policing not only the vast digital ecosystem but also the old fashioned boardroom was also an event theme. According to a survey of investors at the Web Summit, 82 percent do not believe the tech industry has done enough to combat the proliferation of fake news. And another 60 percent went on to say that Silicon Valley is guilty of not successfully tackling sexism in the industry. Most experts agreed there is still so much more to do.

Here, 8 themes from this year's Web Summit that stretch our thinking and make us question our brave new world.

1. In terms of tech, are we opening Pandora's box?

“We all know we live in a digital world and that is not just a statement about the present, that's a prediction about the future," said Smith. “The future of healthcare is digital healthcare. The future of skills and education is digital, the future of jobs is digital. In the world of today, digital technology has become the cornerstone of of our lives and that raises a fundamental question for all of us: how do we protect the world?"

Clearly smarter systems can allow humanity to live cleaner, healthier lives. The new crop of life-enhancing technology includes everything from bionic limbs to smart cities. However, is there a dark side to being surrounded by smart machines that are potentially smarter than we are?

“You've never been more empowered by technology, you've never been more subject to surveillance and manipulation by technology," said Quentin Hardy, Head of Editorial at Google Cloud during a talk about the influence tech companies have over news. “You've never had more information, you've never been more confused."

Despite the fact that cybercrime costs the world $400 billion a year, one in three investors at the conference agreed that “internet companies are not a force for good and must be regulated." The Russian Facebook hacking scandal, which came up over and over throughout the conference, is just one example of what can happen when a tech platform is open for the taking. Another that was brought up by Microsoft exec Brad Smith was the massive North Korea hacking event called “Wannacry," which affected 200,00 computers in 150 countries. “In the history of humanity has there ever been a single attack that affected so many places at exactly the same time?," he asked.

“Everyone is at risk of being influenced and we didn't even know it was happening," said Ross Mason, Founder of Mulesoft, who also covered the topic a debate called The Future of Technology: Will it Benefit Everyone? “Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking are saying the technology we're creating is going to be very damning for us if we don't put controls around it. It's going to be impossible to retrofit after. When we open that Pandora's Box, we don't know what is going to happen."

2. Or will tech make us better?

Speaking on the positive side of things was Intel CEO, Brian Krzanich. Intel, known for being “the brain" behind many of the tech innovations of our time, brought with him live demonstrations-including a full-size smart car, which-yes- he brought on stage, that reflected the company's vision of where we are headed.

He shared his vision for a tech-forward future, which would use localized drones to help protect citizens against everything from shark attacks to kidnappings. “Imagine a world with AI to save lives anywhere in the world," said Krzanich, adding that in August the tech firm acquired vision-based driving system, Mobileye, an Israeli technology company that develops specialized driver-assistance systems for collision prevention. “The idea here is to think about AI differently. You don't need it backed to large data center, you can do real time ID and take action. That's going to be where the future is."

Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, also spoke on the topic, sharing that technology may actually be what saves humanity. Gelsinger, who helped create USB and WiFi, went on to say that the “four horsemen of apocalypse" affecting our modern world include health, environment, poverty and extremism. “In each case technology is applied to the benefit of everyone on the planet," he said.

The unifying powers of social media were also up for discussion. Are they doing more good or bad? While the Russia hack and other cyber attacks were called out across the board, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman says social media also allows us to connect, and potentially find more peaceful ways to coexist. “You see people misbehave on Reddit and anywhere else. but when you put people in the right context and strip motivations, people are a lot more generous, interesting and collaborative than you think," says Huffman, who also announced his platform's recent redesign. “Forced perspective brings empathy along with it."

“We need a human-centric approach, thinking about the people who will ultimately benefit from the AI we stand in front of right now."

- Simon Segars

3. Can empathy save us?

One of the event's most unexpected speakers was Caitlyn Jenner, who delivered an emotional speech about acceptance. In her talk, Jenner revealed a softer side, one where she admitted that she hasn't been portrayed very well in the media, but that she wants to use her platform for good.

"I have been accused by the trans community of White privilege," said Jenner, facing the controversy head on. "I have a job and you know what they are right. My experience for the last 2.5 years has been different. I get that, but I have a platform and maybe I can use that platform to make a difference."

Avoiding direct mention of the Kardashian family, Jenner stayed on topic: explaining with facts and figures how the trans community is one of the most marginalized and its programs underfunded. Many of its members end up in the sex trade or contemplate suicide, she shared. "Of the L, the G, the B and the T, the T is by far the most misunderstood. People don't understand our issues."

She went on to say that regardless of her athletic accolades had always felt like something was amiss, especially when giving motivational speeches in a body she didn't feel was hers. "I would walk off the stage and felt like a fraud because I couldn't tell them the whole story," said Jenner, who underscored how important empathy is to helping solve prejudice in the workplace and everywhere else. "I am not a spokesperson for the trans community, I am a spokesperson for my story."

4. Is it possible to program morality?

So, we can program intelligence, but what about programming morality? When it comes to innovations like self-driving cars, and humanoid robots, Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, said many are fitted with their own ability to "minimize loss," which is creating a slew of questions about ethics. “There are new challenges, there are new risks involved," said Segars, whose company was acquired in 2016 by SoftBank Group for $24.3 B Euro.

“Self-driving cars are going to have accidents. Self-driving cars are going to have to-in a split second- make a choice on how to minimize loss and it's really interesting to consider what kind of moral set of values we program into the device to decide what choice is it going to make," he said, mentioning the MIT Moral Machine as it is currently fielding important research into tech ethics. “Some of it's simple: a self-driving car whose brakes have failed and your choice is run over a bunch of guys who just robbed a bank or a bunch of old people crossing the road? That one is easy; but if it's young people vs, old people, [then what?]"

“We need a very human-centric approach to data and AI to ensure we deliver all the benefits," said Segars. "Technology can help deal with humans which are often the weakest link."

Speaking on morality from a much less high-tech point of view were Christine Herron of StartX and Kara Swisher of Recode, who discussed on a panel how it is possible to program morality into executives who have lived their whole lives without being questioned. “There are all kinds of pockets of this behavior going on," said Dick Kramlich, of New Enterprise Associates, who also spoke about the matter. “It's not just Silicon Valley, not just New York, and the more uniformity we can have on speaking out [the better]."

5. Is there such a thing as too much data?

“We are moving towards a world where everything is connected in ways we've never seen before," said Segars, adding that his semiconductor IP company predicts there will be another trillion devices online and connected by 2035. “This is leading us to a word of data...not big data but massive data. Data will be the driver of this next wave of technology and our future will be very much dedicated by our ability to acquire, process and store, and gain insight from data that we just never had to think about in the past."

Hope Solo. Photo courtesy of Diário de Notícias

“We see unfolding around us a new arms race; an arms race of invisible weapons."

-Brad Smith

The discussion of smart cities intertwined with the discussion of data, and Segars said that more devices will lead to both. “Devices are going to go inside everywhere- they're going to be in the concrete of the roads, they're going to be in stores, hospitals, they're going to be in the fields growing our crops," added Segars. “This is going to lead to this world of data, this world of AI."

And speaking of smart cities, Francesca Bria, From The City of Barcelona shared her opinion that in order for the infrastructure to benefit the many, we must begin to democratize data. "Data is a new public infrastructure and right now only a few companies that own all the data," said Bria. "We must establish democracy around data because then we can go into fully digital public services that benefit many more people. If we collectively own the data and we can use it to improve quality of air, improve health care, [and more]. It can become a public common resource to achieve common challenges in a democratized way."

But of course there are some blind spots. “It's a really exciting future ahead with great benefits to society and to people," added Segars, making the point that the dark side comes when we don't know who is getting our data and for what purpose. “It's going to be fundamentally limiting if people don't trust technology. So one of the biggest issues we have to address in the future is trust."

In terms of transparency, Segars warns “the more choices tech makes for us the spookier it seems. “As tech companies, we need to be transparent about it. We can't have a bunch of terms and conditions written in micro-font that we hide behind. We have to be very upfront on what's happening with data and how we're using it."

6. Is it too late to reverse climate change?

“There's a collision underway right now between human civilization as we have come to organize it and the ecological system of this planet and there are many manifestations of it," Gore said during the event's final talk. “But the single most important part of this collision is the climate crisis and the reason it's the most important is that the most vulnerable part of the earth's ecosystem is the atmosphere. The sky can appear as if it goes on forever but you see from the pictures brought back from space, it's very thin."

Gore went on to say that while some may get overwhelmed and feel "all doom and gloom" by the damage we've done, technology allows us to fix past mistakes and plan for a sustainable future.

“It's very exciting and I'm optimistic and I'm hopeful but we need to match all the new tools we have and all the exciting opportunities with enough political will to really get the job done. Everything depends on it."

- Al Gore

9 November 2017; Al Gore, Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Gore underscored a feeling of stress regarding the unpredictable US president and how it's affecting the world. He called on the young entrepreneurs in the room to recognize and help fight against the policies of the current president. He named Proterra and M-Kopa as two startups, which his fund Generation Investment Management invested in, who are fusing their passion and brilliance in technology with their goals of bettering the world.

“You need to make a distinction between President Donald J. Trump and the United States of America," said Gore regarding the American citizens' commitment to the Paris Agreement despite the decisions of our administration. “The United States of America is going to meet its commitments and we're going to do our part in spite of Donald J. Trump."

He closed his talk with an emotional plea that young minds continue working to tackle the problem of climate change through innovative tech solutions. “Everything is at stake," said Gore. "Trust me, 10 to 20 years from now, you're going to look back at 2017 and you're going to say 'boy it was a whole lot more serious than I realized it was and the opportunities were so much greater. that's the moment we're in. We need your help. We need your passionate involvement. We have all the tools we need to solve this crisis."

7. What about sexism?

Olympian Hope Solo brought her A-game to the Web Summit. The world-famous soccer goalie, spoke loudly and clearly about her termination from the United States Soccer Federation and her new determination to fight back. “I dedicated my life to the game, I helped the US win gold medals, and I was still best goalkeeper in world when got fired," said Solo. “In order to create change you can't just talk about it you have to make sacrifices. I did and I am but we need more."

Solo shared that when it comes to numbers, the women are actually bringing in more money that the men's team, which makes the vast pay discrepancy even more shocking. “In 2015 the men's national team had a loss of 2 million, and the same year the women's team brought in close to 20 million for the federation," she said. The women outperformed the men in ticket sales in 2016 as well.

“As long as Sunil Gulati [President of the Federation] is there... as long as the Federation continues to treat the women poorly I decide not to go back to them," said Solo, who has now dedicated her life and fame to advocacy. “The handcuffs have been removed from my employer. They thought they could silence me but they're probably regretting it."

8. Does social media need regulation?

The question of ethics was one that reverberated through the convention. For, Quentin Hardy, who works in analytic journalism for Google Cloud, the question of whether social media platforms-specifically Facebook- should be considered media or tech companies, is of the utmost importance. “The question is how do these platforms evolve? Do they take responsibility or do they pass? To what extent do they begin to help users sort out high quality journalistic content from fraudulent news? [We're in a world where] virality steers news judgement. This is uncharted territory."

At one particularly heated discussion, Digital Director for the Trump campaign Brad Parscale, was questioned by Yahoo News Editor, Michael Isikoff on the controversy of Russia's involvement and the role it played in the election. “You do know that there were Russian bots out there who were specifically speaking to your voters," said Isikoff, who showed an example of a Russian troll account disguises itself as a Tennessee Republican group to a raucous crowd. “Trump campaign officials retweeted the messages from this fake Russian bot, including yourself."

The crowd at the Web Summit

Responding that because there is no forced identification of IP addresses on social media, he had no idea that he was amplifying the words of Russian hackers. “Millions of people re-Tweet Tweets, you don't have any idea who's behind that account" said Parscale. “If there had been a Russian flag IP up there… would I re-Tweet it? No."

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.