Ethics of engineers

In November 1957 we sent a little curly-haired stray dog to certain death, her name was Kudryavka and we all know her as Laika, the space dog, the first living thing to orbit the earth. For all of us, the mission was a great success, proving that animals can withstand microgravity and learning that if we did not improve the heat-sealing system of the capsule, we would be slowly charred to death, as happened to the heroic little animal.

It was a full-fledged “animalicide”, there were so many variables that we had no control over that only a miracle could save Laika, so should the engineers have offered their knowledge and skills to carry out that infernal mission?

As early as 1906, the American Society of Electrical Engineers approved what is considered the first catalogue of Codes of Ethics, a series of deontological rules that marked the way to distinguish its professionals as a collective that did and promoted the common good. Although most universities (at least the ones I know of) do not currently include a specific educational chapter on the ethics of engineers, in their drawers full of studies and methodological professorships, they treasure compilations of ethical rules that are, in a way, the offspring of their American father.

However, engineers, who are also people and live in communities that evolve with their own ethical and moral standards (I use both terms to avoid angering purists), try to stay in the “good work” lane, and I say try because we come up against the vital trade-offs of creativity, standards vs. progress.

How ethical it is to immobilise ethics, history has miles of examples for and against the answers to this question, the popular use of electricity was in its early days, to say the least, irresponsible from any angle, the instability of the systems, the lack of knowledge about it and the capacity for the immoral to use the invention to enhance their capacity to do physical and social harm was infinite, However, we broke the rules, and step by step we engineers, who then took a belligerent attitude in favour of bringing the goodness and badness of electricity to all, have focused on improving the technical chapter and generating the control systems that arbitrate its use.

With the popularisation of the development of Artificial Intelligence, we are facing a very similar dilemma. The benefits that we will be able to obtain when it is a stable technology and we have control over its use are undeniable, but, by then, we will have to have overcome the period of uncertainties, the consequences of not being able to mark the limit of responsibilities between the programmer and his programmes, which are not only capable of generating new rules, but can also alter the order of priorities between them.

I am an optimist, although I know that there are unscrupulous individuals, I believe that common sense leads us humans to establish and control the rules for taking advantage of technological developments from a moral or ethical point of view. Many minds have been infected with pamphlet ideas, but engineers created the printing press to popularise knowledge, and that is what has transcended.

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