Ask a person if he or she is a racist and the answer is almost always no. Ask a developer if they consider ethical considerations when writing code and only six percent say no. If everyone acted the way they self-report, then there would be peace and love throughout the world.
Based on over a hundred thousand respondents, StackOverflow’s Developer Survey 2018 presents a more complicated reality. If they were asked to write code for an unethical purpose, 59 percent would say no, but another 37 percent of developers were non-committal about whether they would comply. In another question, only about 5 percent said they definitely would not report unethical problems with code. But sounding the alarm is about as far as most people will go.
When asked who is ultimately responsible for what the code accomplishes, almost 58 percent pass the buck to upper management. Only 20 percent think the actual developer is the main culprit. In other words, developers are likely to speak up but may have problems internalizing their own responsibility.
This points to broader implications in the realm of artificial intelligence. In the same survey, 49 percent said that the people creating AI are primarily responsible for considering its ramifications, with only 28 percent putting the onus government or regulatory bodies. And even if they are considering its ramifications, on balance 73 percent of developers said they are more excited about AI’s possibilities rather than worried about its dangers.
As Theo Scholossnagle of Circonus and Anne Currie relayed in recent podcasts, considering software ethics is important and should be integrated into developer’s routine. Going beyond discussions at conferences, ethically considerations should criteria in formal decision-making processes as well as day-to-day choices. Perhaps there will be a difference of opinion about what is ethical. Perhaps a collective decision will be made that government not individuals are business are ultimately responsible. The important thing is that ethics needs a seat at the table before people take responsibility for the technology’s social implications.
Feature image via Pixabay.