New guidelines issued by the Association for Computing Machinery are the first significant upgrade since 1992.
The new code has been released to help technologists deal with the fact that their actions can have a larger impact on the modern world now more than any time in the past:
“Computing professionals’ actions change the world,” begins the code, acknowledging the fact that the software they write has a global impact. “In modern society computers, software and digital data are everywhere. They’re visible in laptops and smartphones, social media and video conferencing, but they’re also hidden inside the devices that help manage people’s daily lives, from thermostats to timers on coffee makers. New developments in autonomous vehicles, sensor networks and machine learning mean computing will play an even more central role in everyday life in coming years.”
The main point of the new code of ethics is to encourage programmers to think about the consequences of their work, and that they should work together in socially responsible ways, to avoid and negate negative and harmful side effects of their work.
A key theme of the section on consequences focusses on unintended side effects. Up until the early 1990’s, software and systems impacts were mostly limited to specific locations and/or circumstances. Over the past 28 years however, it has become clear that as technologies evolve, they can also be applied and misused in contexts very different from the original intent.
The code also encourages programmers to actively contribute to society “by engaging in pro bono or volunteer work that benefits the public good.”
Another key highlight of the document is that anyone who signs up to it, has an obligation to report any system or software that could result in harm. If leaders fail to take action as a result, it may then become necessary for people to “blow the whistle.”
The ACM last published a code of ethics back in 1992, when computing work was mostly seen as being mainly technical in nature, and also before the wide spread use of the internet, mainstream adoption of mobile devices, and the idea of Artificial Intelligence was still mostly in the realm of science-fiction.