Ethics and Technology: How technology can be used to keep us on the straight and narrow

Ethics and tech

By Phaeda Boinodiris  |  February 14, 2018

Firstly, let me start by saying that moral ethics is a code that everyone is able to pursue. Whether we choose to or not is up to the individual.

We have all heard the stories that range from biased AI engines to hackable systems. In this hopeful article, I will help establish a framework for how to think about Ethics and Technology. Indeed though we have the ability to pursue a code of moral ethics, perhaps technology in some cases could at least warn us if not downright deter us when we are wandering down a path that is not ethical.

1. Fair Elections/Representation

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” 

— Paul Elridge

The state of NC has been plagued by gerrymandering. Time and time again, the NC General Assembly has been sent to redraw its districting maps by the courts. In this most recent debacle, a Duke professor used a mathematical model to prove why the newly redrawn maps were still highly biased towards republicans. According to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn, historically, its far from uncommon for courts to lean on scientific analysis as evidence of constitutional violations.

Why is the use of these mathematical models not common practice? I propose that the use of these mathematical models be absolutely mandatory when scrutinizing the legality of districting lines.  One could additionally use AI to mine data for patterns ensuring that the lines were not drawn exhibiting a specific kind of bias. 

  • Enforce use of mathematical models and AI to stem gerrymandering



Risk Mitigation

Mathematically proving that line districting is not corrupt

Could AI be trained to be biased?

Ensure fully transparent AI training to eliminate bias


2. Fake News/ Trolling

“Relativity applies to Physics, not Ethics.”

–Albert Einstein

No Fake News

Today, shareholders are demanding that Facebook and Twitter take action against the proliferation of Fake News and Hate Speech. Facebook and Twitter are stepping up their efforts by using AI to track the offenders and then ban or greatly reduce their ability to distribute. They are additionally trying to inform consumers of news through a function called ‘Related Articles’ to learn more about the topic before sharing. The challenge with this approach is that many people who share fake news actively seek out sources of news that are highly curated to their belief systems. So the trick is, how do you incentivize people to change this behavior?

We can use AI to flag when a pattern of hate speech or fake news is occurring, but we need to understand people better to know what's best do next with that information. Perhaps we do different things based on the audience. Do we scrub the feed when we know a minor is consuming the data? Do we let people put their own throttles in place? Do we gate people so that only those with a low ‘toxicity score’ can play a game or be able to post on a social media site? These are perhaps questions not as much for technologists as they are for ethicists.

  • Use AI to Flag Fake news and Hate Speech and then do something with that knowledge



Risk Mitigation

Create safe spaces for people online free of hate speech and fake news

When will we be at risk for over-cleaning information. If people self throttle data, is this not more of the same problem for curating spaces that re-enforce bias?

Fully transparent rules for throttling.


3. Financial Transparency in Public Institutions

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” 
—Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

What if we had a means to use technology to ensure that all promises that were made by government agencies, and other entities were kept. When money is promised, that it was indeed delivered to the right parties and that it was all transparent as to who got what. This could be audited at will by the public. THIS is in our reach today with blockchain technology. Blockchain is the technology framework underlying cryptocurrency. Today there are permissioned blockchains where networks can create something called smart contracts to share key data points and then kickoff processes when threshholds are met in a secure manner. Auditors can be invited onto these networks to review transactions safely at anytime. WHY would we NOT use this technology for government institutions? We have already kicked off an era of Open government where certain datasets were made public; why not open up how money is being transferred? Yes, we can ensure that datasets that are highly sensitive can only be audited by vetted sources but at least there would be a system that could host an infrastructure to evolve this concept.

  • Using Blockchain to ensure transparency of financial transactions in government institutions



Risk Mitigation

Transparency of financial transactions in government

Can this data be misused by foreign governments

Auditing & permissions analysis


4. AI for Better Decision Making

“Make not, when you work a deed of shame, The scoundrel’s plea, ‘My forbears did the same.”
— Al-Ma’arri

AI can be used to mine all kinds of disparate datasets in order to find patterns. AI is fallible in that it too is trained by humans that could infuse their own biases into the AI’s pattern recognition. But if we could create AI systems that would also be fully transparent in terms of how it was trained (vs. be in a black-box) AND that it threw up a flag when it was being trained on a very different pattern (possibly introducing bias), we could really start to use AI to solve all kinds of new and interesting problems.



Risk Mitigation

Flag us when bias corrupts

AI is corruptible

Completely transparent AI training, flags for when new patterns introduces


5. Re-inventing Education

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” 
— Aristotle

Per the World Economic Forum:

“All children and youth, no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, family income, citizenship, disability status or where they live, should be enrolled in school and learning. But as we reach the target year for achieving Education for All (EFA), it is clear that this is not the case. About 121 million children and adolescents are still being denied their right to learning opportunities through education.

And it is not just the young who continue to miss out on education. At least 781 million adults – two-thirds women — lack minimal literacy skills. In sub-Saharan Africa, half of all women are denied their right to literacy.”

We have a moral and ethical imperative to ensure that everyone has access to a quality education. I have spoken at length about how technology can help facilitate cultural transformation in the classroom, but it can also help ensure accessibility as well. I am NOT stating that technology is the end all be all for education but that it can facilitate student engagement, teacher empowerment, access, and cultural transformation. AI can be used to personalize learning, blockchain enabled skills ledgers can democratize that learning even for school systems that lack resources, and free tele-communications software can enable truly global classrooms unrestricted by geography.

  • Blockchain enabled skills ledgers, game based learning, AI personalized learning



Risk Mitigation

Democratized learning, retraining masses outside of slower public school systems

Accessible only to those with Bandwidth

Ensure internet accessibility for all

See UN SDG #4

In his 1964 Nobel Lecture at Oslo, Norway, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us to not let our “moral progress” fall behind our progress in science and technology. He said:

“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.


This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual “lag” must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the “without” of man’s nature subjugates the “within,” dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.”


These are a mere handful of examples; there are countless more. I hope this has inspired you to think about technology using this lens. Again, we must be ever vigilant that we do not use technology to be our moral crutch, that we continue to educate people to make wiser decisions using an ethical compass. Technology is a tool that could when properly harnessed, and with proper oversight, be used to potentially help us on this journey. Be dedicated to Tech for Good. 

Phaedra Boinodiris is a relatively new member to IBM’s Blockchain team. Since the start of her career at IBM she has been a Developer Advocate and IBM’s global lead for serious games and gamification. She is also the author of Serious Games for Business, published in 2014 by Megan-Kiffer press. Boinodiris’ earlier work in serious games are being used in over 1000 schools worldwide to teach students the fundamentals of business optimization. Boinodiris was honored by Women in Games International as one of the top 100 women in the games industry. Prior to working at IBM, she was a serial entrepreneur for 14 years where she co-founded WomenGamers.Com, a popular women’s gaming portal. There she subsequently started the first scholarship for women to pursue degrees in game design and development in the US. In November of 2015, Boinodiris was elected as a member of IBM’s Academy of Technology and has 6 patents in the gaming space. Boinodiris happily mentors business school students at her alma-mater UNC-Chapel Hill.