Thoughts about responsibility

for software engineers

This year’s Google I/O event started with Sundar Pichai stating:

We recognize the fact that the tech industry must always be responsible about the tools and services that it creates.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this is why I started blogging again. Because I feel responsible for the technology we are creating.

But what does this really mean? Sundar did not elaborate during the keynote… So here are my own thoughts.

First it means that we must apply our talents with good intentions. Creating an algorithm that diagnoses eye diseases is a good thing, making this accessible to all people is even better. Automating away routine everyday tasks and giving people more time to do meaningful things, it’s great too. Working towards self driving cars is in essence also cool.

But secondly, being responsible also means being mindful of the consequences – some of them unintended – of the disruption we are causing with our innovations. Technology is fundamentally transforming society. Automation transforms the job market, social networks transform the media, autonomous weapons change the power balance between nations. We cannot say that this is somebody else’s problem. We cannot say that we are just tech people… how our tech is used is up to regulators to control, sociologists to analyze and philosophers to contemplate about. No. We created it, we understand it best, it’s our task to deal with the consequences. And in doing so, we must have the whole humanity’s interest in mind. Technological advancement is good in principle, but only if we do it right: if we make life better for everyone. And some groups are vulnerable to being left out: old people, non tech-savvy people, people who don’t have access to technology…

It’s part of the job to take responsibility for the technology we create. And it’s a damn hard thing to do it right, but hey, that’s what really makes our job really cool!

I am not alone with these thoughts… Let me close by quoting a very wise man:

It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man’s blessings. Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors; concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.

– Albert Einstein, speech at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, February 16, 1931, as reported in The New York Times, February 17, 1931, p. 6.