Georgetown has a glorious history in practical ethics, the application of theories and concepts of ethics real-life problems. In the 20th century, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics was a key founding institution of the field we now call “bioethics.” A collaborative team of scholars gave structure to the moral reasoning of families and caregivers of patients, physicians and health care providers, and patients themselves. From the writing of the basic expository text, to annual intensive workshops, to day-to-day service within health care organizations, the Institute helped to shape a way of thinking about decision-making in health care delivery, nurtured a field of academic inquiry, and helped define set of occupational roles.
Currently, Georgetown has a set of faculty who believe that the 21st century will produce another opportunity to define a new field – digital ethics. The rapid developments in digital technology have produced questions not yet fully understood and certainly not fully answered: What responsibilities do owners of personal data repositories have regarding data uses affecting individuals? How does society ensure algorithms do not propagate social inequality? Do those controlling personal data have any obligations to their common good use? What civic obligations do individuals have to permit use of their personal data for common good purposes? Who is to decide what are common good uses of personal data? How do we train leaders and policymakers to understand the ethical challenges of the digital world? What obligations do users of internet platforms have to acting in ways that enhance the common good of all users?
It is clear that extreme solutions are harmful: a) all personal data could be destroyed, but common good use would be lost, or b) all personal data would be fully available to all the public, but with great potential personal harm. We must urgently act to find a way to use data to benefit the common good, minimize inequities, protect the physical and psychological health of users, and preserve or enhance privacy.
For Georgetown to have impact on the framing of digital ethical guidance, it will assemble an interdisciplinary group of computer scientists, legal/regulatory scholars, statisticians, policy scholars, social scientists, and philosophers, working together in shared space, to be called the Georgetown Center for Digital Ethics.
How will the Center build the field? – constructing theory, educational content, and practical guidance to practitioners. For example, it will expand the work already occurring at Georgetown on the interface between computer science and regulatory design; it will design and build out course content; it will convene key leaders in the information, defense, and regulatory sectors to shape the way toward influencing strategy. It will be a collaborator in the new Technology, Ethics, and Society undergraduate programs, and the new Masters of Law and Technology, as well as other existing and future educational programs. As hospitals have bioethicists, we imagine the day that organizations would routinely have digital ethicists.
A few of the areas of focus might include:
Privacy and Data for the Common Good. This impact program will shape practical government, business, and nonprofit sector postures on privacy protections. It will address the role of civic participation in data collection activities from a technical-ethical perspective. It will produce evidence-based policy guidelines for those developing governmental regulations affecting data sharing and data use.
Artificial Intelligence, Equity, and Human Autonomy. This impact program will probe how artificial intelligence design can enhance the fair treatment of different groups in society.
Building the Field of Digital Ethics. The Center will be the home for philosophers, computer scientists, and social scientists who seek to identify the theoretical underpinnings of the field.
Tracking Public Attitudes and Behavior in Technology Use. Technology use is not the domain of a few experts. Emergent norms should be tracked among diverse populations.
We are pleased to announce a cluster hire search for three new tenure-line faculty who will join current Georgetown faculty interested in building the Center. Two of the appointments will be endowed professorships made possible by philanthropy. A multi-disciplinary group of faculty throughout the university will lead the search with possible tenure homes in one of many different units.
There is an urgent challenge facing us in building a technology rich world that enhance widespread human welfare. Georgetown has an obligation to contribute to this work.