History of Ethics in Computer Programming

History of Ethics in Computer Programming

Early Days (1940-1950’s)

The first generation of computer programmers in the 1940’s was highly self-regimented and independent from each other. Though communication was limited, there was a sense of camaraderie amongst programmers with the belief that they were really the only ones in the world who understood how computers worked. The power of computers was quickly realized and in the beginning much of it was used for academic research, government sectors and confidential military projects.

During World War 2, MIT professor and mathematician Nobert Wiener noticed the growth of computers technology and projected immense growth possibilities. He also theorized with such computing power, ethical issues will surely arise along with its impact. After World War 2, Wiener began to release a series of books, ‘Cybernetics’ (1948), ‘The Human Use of Human Beings’ (1950), and ‘God and Golem, Inc.’ (1963), which would become a foundation for moral philosophies involving computers in society.

In ‘Cybernetics’, Wiener introduces the science of information feedback systems and how with computers we can create an ideal central nervous system with automatic control over apparatuses using programs. By using computers, scientists and engineers could potentially build and replicate any system imaginable. Their only limitations would be the current processing power of computers. With a sandbox such as computers at our disposal, Wiener emphasizes the societal importance of good and evil.

A more comprehensive exploration of ethical concepts is established in Wiener’s ‘The Human Use of Human Beings’. These include: an account of the purpose of a human life, four principles of justice, a powerful method for doing applied ethics, discussions of the fundamental questions of computer ethics, and examples of key computer ethics topics. Wiener also predicts a ‘second industrial revolution’ with the integration of computer technology and society. This computer revolution will take decades, but it will completely rewrite society with changes to the concept of work, government, and society. This book stapled Wiener as the father of computer ethics.

Walter Maner, a true renaissance man

Wild West & Renaissance (1960-1980’s)

Wiener’s ideas were ahead of its time. Social and ethical consequences within computer technology were not revisited until the 1960’s when computer-related crimes (bank robberies, identity theft, invasions of privacy, etc.) started to occur. In 1973, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) adopted a code of ethics for their members after receiving a letter from Donn Parker, a computer crime writer. Computer crime laws were beginning to be enacted in USA and Europe with more codes of conduct being adopted by organizations. In 1976, MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum wrote his book ‘Computer Power and Human Reason’ in response to the controversy surrounding his computer program ‘ELIZA’. The program was intended to mimic and simulate a psychotherapy session but had caused a stir with psychiatrists that believed computers will take over their jobs as well as few testers that became a bit too emotionally involved with it.

In 1976, Walter Maner coined the term ‘computer ethics’ after realizing that there are many ethical problems created by computer technology that must be studied. He proposed computer ethics to be a branch of applied ethics and began to travel, teaching a computer ethics course for universities and published his book ‘A Starter Kit for Teaching Computer Ethics’. By the 80’s, Maner had inspired many scholars and students that started a brand-new era of applied ethics. In 1985, James Moor published his essay ‘What is Computer Ethics’ in Metaphilosophy, a scientific journal. In his essay, Moor is concerned about an ethical consideration in both the individual perspective and the societal perspective by exploring topics such as identification of computer-generated policy vacuums, clarification of conceptual muddles, formulation of policies for the use of computer technology and ethical justification of such policies. This same year, the first major textbook on computer ethics, ‘Computer Ethics’, by Deborah Johnson was published. In her textbook, Johnson argues that computers technology does not create new ethical problems but gave a new twist to existing issues like ownership, power, privacy and responsibility.

With a plethora of research, development and education in the field, 1980’s was a time of great growth for computer ethics. Researcher, Donald Gotterbarn had a vital part in developing the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, adopted by the ACM, as well as creating the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, adopted by the ACM and the ICEE.

The Modern Computer Ethics Debate

As mentioned in the previous section, Johnson, author of the textbook ‘Computer Ethics’, states that the ethics within computer technology are the same as any other industry’s moral dilemmas, and that it will eventually merge with the global code of ethics. This is known as ‘The Johnson Hypothesis’. On the other end of the argument, is ‘The Górniak Hypothesis’, proposed by researcher Krystyna Górniak-Kocikowska in 1996. Górniak states that ethics in computer science will evolve with computer technology, and eventually become completely separated from a global code of ethics. With the modern development of biotechnology, AI, quantum mechanics, and the even latest compression technologies, certainly more complex ethical questions are arising. However, at their simplest form, are they the moral conflicts?

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