How important will human experience and instincts be in the future, and what value will morality have? How do we bring our values and new technologies together? Who, for example, assumes responsibility for the endangerment of human life by autonomously acting machines and computer programs?

Ethics is that part of philosophy that deals with the prerequisites and evaluation of human action. At its centre is specifically moral action, the distinction between “good” and “evil”. Since time immemorial, ethical guidelines have been a signpost for our own actions in our society. But do we also need special digital ethics in the age of computer science and robotics?

This is quite controversial, but most people consider it sensible and necessary. The German Federal Association of the Digital Economy (BVDW) has commissioned a study entitled “Artificial Intelligence, Smart Home. Networked Health – Ethics in the Digital Economy”. According to the study, 63 percent of respondents would forego certain functions in products if this were necessary to comply with certain ethical standards. And for 74 percent of the study participants, moral principles should already have a high priority in the development of digital products.

Companies are still struggling with this issue

Apparently, however, many companies find this difficult – at least that’s what “Digital Ethics 2019”, a survey by the consulting firm PwC, suggests. Ethical considerations have already played a major role with regard to employee and customer data, security systems and corporate culture. And it creates more “transparency towards customers and stakeholders”, yet there are great challenges in this area.

These include a lack of personnel with the appropriate knowledge, unsuitable software, growing cybercrime as well as the actual implementation of data security and protection in accordance with the company’s own guidelines. In fact, only one in four of the companies surveyed worked with clearly formulated guidelines.

But digital ethics is not a marginal issue for companies. “Companies that set standards for a responsible approach to digitization will gain customer acceptance and the society’s trust,” says Daniela Hanauer, an expert in risk consulting at PwC Germany. However, most companies lack a holistic view of the issue and underestimate how important it is for the establishment of new digital business models.

A successful transformation presupposes that companies formulate guidelines that make it possible to develop technologies according to high ethical standards. This means, for example, that they do not discriminate, safeguard data protection and privacy and contribute to the well-being of people.

Switzerland wants to be a pioneer in setting standards

In many countries there are already initiatives and platforms that deal intensively with this topic. In Switzerland, the “Swiss Digital Initiative“ (SDI) was recently founded in Geneva. It involved top representatives of globally active companies, scientists and renowned international organisations. The SDI provides a platform “to promote constructive and substantial discussions on the topic of ethics and fairness in the age of digital transformation”.

The initiative builds on the numerous digital declarations, value charters, and principle statements elaborated by state and non-state actors around the globe. Practices and tools elaborated under the umbrella of the SDI will be publicly shared to contribute to a global dialogue on the ethics of digitalisation. Switzerland is in the opinion of the initiators “an excellent place to host this Initiative, with its longstanding humanitarian tradition, diplomatic good offices, neutrality, and outstanding resources in education and the business sector”. The purpose of the SDI is:

  •  to anchor ethical standards within the digital world,
  • to promote the technological potential that serves human societies,
  • to develop specific and action-oriented projects that contribute to a global dialogue on the ethics of digitisation and promote confidence in digital technologies and in the actors involved in the ongoing process of digital transformation.

In its 10 strategic technology trends for 2019, the research and consulting firm Gartner is definitely putting digital ethics and data protection on an equal footing with blockchain, artificial intelligence, edge computing and quantum computers. They added that it is now an important economic factor and that “companies must win and retain the trust of their customers in order to be successful. And they must use internal values to ensure that customers regard them as trustworthy.”

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