Much of engineering today is about technology: inventing and perfecting faster, cleaner, better ways to do the things that need doing. But too often, in the pursuit of technological greatness, we as engineers neglect to consider the consequences of what we create, specifically in the larger context of society. This issue, the first of Volume 5, investigates the ethical (and unethical) ways in which various technologies are used, and ends with a look at what questions and opportunities for action arise when technology, the environment, and issues of societal injustice collide.
The first paper, by Tyler Amano-Smerling, explores the ethics of the economics of today’s video games and the various ways video game developers have devised to snag our attention (and our cash).
Then, Beatriz Suarez delves into another recent software development, specifically the subtle ways our digital voice assistants impact our relationships and influence our behaviors, as well as how these affect wider society.
Sameeksha Agrawal considers a much more dangerous up-and-coming technology in her investigation of autonomous weapons systems and how they fit into the ethical frameworks we use for traditional warfare.
In the next paper, Sarah Cigas investigates the feasibility and ethicality of using radical human-made technology to fight the disastrous effects of global warming through the controversial practice of geoengineering.
Finally, June Moon examines the environment through a different lens, one of environmental racism and justice. With several real-life examples, she demonstrates the way engineers can either perpetuate or challenge the way communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.
So, without further ado, I’m pleased to welcome you to this semester’s issue of Viterbi Conversations in Ethics, and I hope these papers can serve as an intriguing journey through the ethical landscape found at the intersection of society, technology, and the environment.Teagan Ampe, VCE Editor-in-Chief
- Pay to Play: The Ethics of Video Game Economics
Video games provide endless hours of fun for people of all ages, races, and genders. Gamers may not realize, however, that certain elements of their favorite form of entertainment may pose a serious threat to their wallets—and even their mental health. Game developers employ various techniques to manipulate users into purchasing items in the in-game store, including lockouts, reward removal, and loot boxes; considering virtue ethics and computer scientists’ ethical code emphasizes the need to remedy this exploitation.
- The Ethics of Digital Voice Assistants
In 2019, there were a staggering 3.25 billion digital voice assistants in use across the globe, a figure that is predicted to rise to 8 billion by 2023. These assistants, which include Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and more, are not just computers; they have voices and personalities, and we develop social relationships with them just like we do with real people. However, the way they are currently designed, voice assistants enable and even encourage certain stereotypes and social behaviors in their users. This paper explores the ethicality of digital voice assistants and their effects on those who use them and suggests ways designers can approach their development to make sure such socially detrimental effects are mitigated.
- Autonomous Weapon Systems: Our New Soldiers, or a Disaster Waiting to Happen?
Morality in the process of war, or “jus in bello,” is one of the two principles of the Just War Theory doctrine, created by ethicists in an attempt to reduce the immorality of war. Autonomous weapons, which function without human control and have been used by the United States military since the Obama administration, may thus be unable to fulfill the requirements of jus in bello. So, is it possible for fully autonomous weaponry to ethically take human life in the context of war? As autonomous weapons cannot be held liable for their actions, lack the capacity to make crucial decisions on their own, and would have a profoundly negative effect on the civilian population, this paper argues that they are therefore unable to be used ethically and should not be participants in war.
- Ethics of Geoengineering
Until recently, the concept of geoengineering has widely been dismissed as a far-fetched and unethical idea to manipulate the environment. Geoengineering proposals intend to reduce the effects of global warming by manipulating the environment through extracting carbon dioxide from the air or reflecting sunlight to reduce global temperatures. However, as the context of climate change has shifted in urgency, geoengineering has emerged as a potential last-ditch effort to save humanity from climate-induced destruction. Despite its many unknowns and risks, geoengineering might provide a temporary solution to delay the detrimental effects of climate change and prevent the irreversible damage projected by current global warming trends.
- Environmental Racism and the Role of Engineers in Providing Justice
Environmental racism, which encapsulates the disproportionate number of minorities living near and negatively impacted by environmental hazards, greatly burdens communities of color both physically and economically. In an effort to attain environmental justice for these communities, engineers have a duty to leverage their knowledge and resources in order to empower and mobilize alongside community organizers and put pressure on opposing stakeholders. This paper reviews the direct correlation between race and environmental hazards, as well as analyzes two cases in which engineers can either harm or help marginalized communities.