We are on the cusp of a brilliant future, only if we choose to embrace it

Speaking a couple of days after the 2022 Federal Election, renowned Australian journalist, Stan Grant, noted that although the election of the Albanese government had been a moment of national ‘catharsis’, it was more difficult to discern in the result a commitment to a clear, positive direction for the nation. In that sense, the future shape of Australia remained an ‘open question’.

This was not to deny that the Australian electorate seemed to express, through their vote, a few clear preferences: an end to the debilitating ‘climate wars’, higher standards of integrity in federal politics and more generally, a preference for a more diverse and inclusive form of representation in our national parliament and government.

There is every reason to believe that these expectations will be met. Indeed, one might be encouraged to hope for something more. For example, it was remarkable that the first utterance of Prime Minister Albanese, on claiming victory, was to promise a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ as called for in the Uluru Statement From The Heart. The surprise in this was that this issue had barely been mentioned during the election campaign – yet had clearly loomed large in the mind of the new PM.

So, what else might we aim to achieve as a democratic nation endowed with the most fortuitous circumstances of any nation on earth? Yes, despite the current ‘doom and gloom’, we are on the cusp of a truly brilliant future – if only we choose to embrace it.

We have everything any society could need: vast natural resources, abundant clean energy and an unrivalled repository of wisdom held in trust by the world’s oldest continuous culture supplemented by a richly diverse people drawn from every corner of the planet. However, whether this future can be grasped depends not on our natural resources, our financial capital, or our technical nous. The ultimate determinant lies in our character.

Three forces can shatter our path to prosperity. First, enemies from without who seek to exploit our grievances and divide our nation into warring factions. Second, a collective fear of the unknown and a lack of trust in those who would lead us there. Third, a lingering, persistent doubt about the legitimacy of a society that violently dispossessed the first peoples of our continent.

Each of these threats can be neutralised – if only we have the collective will and the courage to do so. With this in mind, I have outlined below a set of core, national objectives that I think would secure the endorsement of a vast majority of Australians. It is the realisation of these objectives that will unlock the brilliant future that is available to all Australians.

In five years, we can fashion a society that is at ease with itself and its place in the world. We can have sown the seeds out of which will grow a universal sense of belonging – a gift bestowed by First Nations people who have only ever asked for respect, truth and justice. That sense of unfettered connection, informed by an Indigenous understanding of country that has grown over time immemorial, will be the glue that binds us into one people of many parts. Once established and reinforced, nothing will dissolve that bond.

In five years, we can grow the confidence to embrace radical change – confident that no individual or group will be asked to bear a disproportionate burden while others take an unfair share of the gains. Our commitment to a broadly egalitarian society will move from myth to reality. While we may not all rise to equal heights, no one will be left to fall into the depths of neglect or obscurity. This will allow us to be brave, to take risks and to harvest the rewards of doing so.

In five years, we can be better led. Confidence can be restored in our governments – that they will truly honour their democratic obligation to act solely in the public interest – whether in their use of public resources or in the policies and practices they adopt.

In five years, the aged, the sick and infirm should be cared for by a workforce who are properly valued and rewarded for their support of the most vulnerable.

In five years, all Australians should have a genuine opportunity to make a home for themselves in affordable, secure accommodation.

In five years, everyone should feel more safe and secure in their homes, their workplaces, their cities and towns.

In five years, a confident Australia can build and reinforce enduring alliances with nations who share our desire to live in a just and orderly world free from the heavy yoke of authoritarian governments.

All of this is possible. For the most part our physical and technical infrastructure is world class. Our ethical infrastructure could be better. We need to invest in this area – confident that in doing so we will unlock both social and economic benefits of staggering proportions. As Deloitte Access Economics has estimated, a mere 10% increase in the level of ethics in Australia would lead to an increase in GDP of $45B (yes, billion) every year – not through some kind of ‘magical effect’ but as a direct consequence of the increased trust that better ethics would create.

Do this and we can embrace the brilliant future that beckons us.


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How can Australia pave a successful future?

Are we ready for the world to come?

We are on the cusp of civilisational change driven by powerful new technologies – most notably in the areas of biotech, robotics and expert AI. The days of mass employment are soon to be over.

While there will always be work for some – and that work is likely to be extremely satisfying – there are whole swathes of the current economy where it will make increasingly little sense to employ humans. Those affected range from miners to pathologists: a cross-section of ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ workers, alike in their experience of displacement.

Some people think this is a far too pessimistic view of the future. They point to a long history of technological innovation that has always led to the creation of new and better jobs – albeit after a period of adjustment.

This time, I believe, will be different. In the past, machines only ever improved as a consequence of human innovation. Not so today. Machines are now able to acquire new skills at a rate that is far faster than any human being. They are developing the capacity for self-monitoring, self-repair and self-improvement. As such, they have a latent ability to expand their reach into new niches.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in environments that no human being could tolerate, machines may liberate the latent dreams of humanity to be free from drudgery, exploitation and danger.

However, society’s ability to harvest the benefits of these new technologies crucially depends on planning and managing a just and orderly transition. In particular, we need to ensure that the benefits and burdens of innovation are equitably distributed. Otherwise, all of the benefits of technological innovation could be lost to the complaints of those who feel marginalised or abandoned. On that, history offers some chilling lessons for those willing to learn – especially when those displaced include representatives of the middle class.

COVID-19 has given us a taste of what an unjust and disorderly transition could look like. In the earliest days of the ‘lockdown’ – before governments began to put in place stabilising policy settings such as the JobKeeper payment – we all witnessed the burgeoning lines of the unemployed and wondered if we might be next.

As the immediate crisis begins to ease, Australian governments have begun to think about how to get things back to normal. Their rhetoric focuses on a ‘business-led’ return to prosperity in which everyone returns to work and economic growth funds the repayment of debts accumulated during the the pandemic.

Attempting to recreate the past is a missed opportunity at best, and an act of folly at worst. After all, why recreate the settings of the past if a radically different future is just a few years away?

In these circumstances, let’s use the disruption caused by COVID-19 to spur deeper reflection, to reorganise our society for a future very different from the pre-pandemic past. Let’s learn from earlier societies in which meaning and identity were not linked to having a job.

What kind of social, political and economic arrangements will we need to manage in a world where basic goods and services are provided by machines? Is it time to consider introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all citizens? If so, how would this be paid for?

If taxes cannot be derived from the wages of employees, where will they be found? Should governments tax the means of production? Should they require business to pay for its use of the social and natural capital (the commons) that they consume in generating private profits?

These are just a few of the most obvious questions we need to explore. I do not propose to try to answer them here, but rather, prompt a deeper and wider debate than might otherwise occur.

Old certainties are being replaced with new possibilities. This is to be welcomed. However, I think that we are only contemplating the ‘tip’ of the policy iceberg when it comes to our future. COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of the world to come. Let’s not look away.

The Ethics Centre is a world leader in assessing cultural health and building the leadership capability to make good ethical decisions in complexity. To arrange a confidential conversation contact the team at consulting@ethics.org.au. Visit our consulting page to learn more.

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Is a complicit line acceptable?

The value of a human life

One of the most enduring points of tension during the COVID-19 pandemic has concerned whether the national ‘lockdown’ has done more harm than good.

This issue was squarely on the agenda during a recent edition of ABC TV’s Q+A. The most significant point of contention arose out of comments made by UNSW economist, Associate Professor Gigi Foster. Much of the public response was critical of Dr. Foster’s position – in part because people mistakenly concluded she was arguing that ‘economics’ should trump ‘compassion’.

That is not what Gigi Foster was arguing. Instead, she was trying to draw attention to the fact that the ‘lockdown’ was at risk of causing as much harm to people (including being a threat to their lives) as was the disease, COVID-19, itself.

In making her case, Dr. Foster invoked the idea of Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs). As she pointed out, this concept has been employed by health economists for many decades – most often in trying to decide what is the most efficient and effective allocation of limited funds for healthcare. In essence, the perceived benefit of a QALY is that it allows options to be assessed on a comparable basis – as all human life is made measurable against a common scale.

In essence, the perceived benefit of a QALY is that it allows options to be assessed on a comparable basis – as all human life is made measurable against a common scale.

So, Gigi Foster was not lacking in compassion. Rather, I think she wanted to promote a debate based on the rational assessment of options based on calculation, rather than evaluation. In doing so, she drew attention to the costs (including significant mental health burdens) being borne by sections of the community who are less visible than the aged or infirm (those at highest risk of dying if infected by this coronavirus).

I would argue that there are two major problems with Gigi Foster’s argument. First, I think it is based on an understandable – but questionable – assumption that her way of thinking about such problems is either the only or the best approach. Second, I think that she has failed to spot a basic asymmetry in the two options she was wanting to weigh in the balance. I will outline both objections below.

In invoking the idea of QALYs, Foster’s argument begins with the proposition that, for the purpose of making policy decisions, human lives can be stripped of their individuality and instead, be defined in terms of standard units. In turn, this allows those units to be the objects of calculation. Although Gigi Foster did not explicitly say so, I am fairly certain that she starts from a position that ethical questions should be decided according to outcomes and that the best (most ethical) outcome is that which produces the greatest good (QALYs) for the greatest number.

Many people will agree with this approach – which is a limited example of the kind of Utilitarianism promoted by Bentham, the Mills, Peter Singer, etc. However, there will have been large sections of the Q+A audience who think this approach to be deeply unethical – on a number of levels. First, they would reject the idea that their aged or frail mother, father, etc. be treated as an expression of an undifferentiated unit of life. Second, they would have been unnerved by the idea that any human being should be reduced to a unit of calculation.

…they would have been unnerved by the idea that any human being should be reduced to a unit of calculation.

To do so, they might think, is to violate the ethical precept that every human being possesses an intrinsic dignity. Gigi Foster’s argument sits squarely in a tradition of thinking (calculative rationality) that stems from developments in philosophy in the late 16th and 17th Centuries. It is a form of thinking that is firmly attached to Enlightenment attempts to make sense of existence through the lens of reason – and which sought to end uncertainty through the understanding and control of all variables. It is this tendency that can be found echoing in terms like ‘human resources’.

Although few might express a concern about this in explicit terms, there is a growing rejection of the core idea – especially as its underlying logic is so closely linked to the development of machines (and other systems) that people fear will subordinate rather than serve humanity. This is an issue that Dr Matthew Beard and I have addressed in the broader arena of technological design in our publication, Ethical By Design: Principles for Good Technology.

The second problem with Dr. Foster’s position is that it failed to recognise a fundamental asymmetry between the risks, to life, posed by COVID-19 and the risks posed by the ‘lockdown’. In the case of the former: there is no cure, there is no vaccine, we do not even know if there is lasting immunity for those who survive infection.

We do not yet know why the disease kills more men than women, we do not know its rate of mutation – or its capacity to jump species, etc. In other words, there is only one way to preserve life and to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed by cases of infection leading to otherwise avoidable deaths – and that is to ‘lockdown’.

…there is only one way to preserve life and to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed by cases of infection leading to otherwise avoidable deaths – and that is to ‘lockdown’.

On the other hand, we have available to us a significant number of options for preventing or minimising the harms caused by the lockdown. For example, in advance of implementing the ‘lockdown’, governments could have anticipated the increased risks to mental health leading to a massive investment in its prevention and treatment.

Governments have the policy tools to ensure that there is intergenerational equity and that the burdens of the ‘lockdown’ do not fall disproportionately on the young while the benefits were enjoyed disproportionately by the elderly.

Governments could have ensured that every person in Australia received basic income support – if only in recognition of the fact that every person in Australia has had to play a role in bringing the disease under control. Is it just that all should bear the burden and only some receive relief – even when their needs are as great as others?

Whether or not governments will take up the options that address these issues is, of course, a different question. The point here is that the options are available – in a way that other options for controlling COVID-19 are not. That is the fundamental asymmetry mentioned above.

I think that Gigi Foster was correct to draw attention to the potential harm to life, etc. caused by the ‘lockdown’. However, she was mistaken not to explore the many options that could be taken up to prevent the harm she and many others foresee. Instead, she went straight to her argument about QALYs and allowed the impression to form that the old and the frail might be ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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How much is a human life worth?

Ready or not – the future is coming

We are living in an exceptional era of human history. In a blink of the historical time scale, our species now have the skills to explore the universe, map and modify human genes and develop forms of intelligence that may far surpass their creators.

In fact, given the speed, unpredictability and sheer scale of what was previously unthinkable change, it’s actually better to talk of the future in the plural rather than the singular: the ‘futures’ are coming.

With the convergence of genetic engineering, AI and neurotechnology, entirely unique challenges arise that could test our assumptions about human identity and what connects us together as a species. What does the human experience mean in an era of augmentation, implantation, enhancement and editing of the very building blocks of our being in the future? What happens when we not only hack the human body, but the human mind?

The possible futures that are coming will arrive with such speed that those not ready for them will find themselves struggling to know how to navigate and respond to a world unlike the one we currently know. Those that invest in exploring what the future holds will be well placed to proactively shape their current and future state so they can traverse the complexity, weather the challenges, and maximise the opportunities the future presents.

The Ethics Centre’s Future State Framework is a tailored, future-focused platform for change management, cultural alignment and staff engagement. It draws on futuring methodologies, including trend mapping and future scenario casting, alongside a number of design thinking and innovation methodologies. What sets Future State apart is that it incorporates ethics as the bedrock for strategic and organisational assessment and design. Ethics underpins every aspect of an organisation. An organisation’s purpose, values and principles set the foundation for its culture, gives guidance to leadership, and sets the compass needed to execute strategy.

The future world we inhabit will be built on the choices we make in the present. Yet due to the sheer complexity of the multitudes of decisions we make every day, it’s a future that is both unpredictable and emergent. The laws, processes, methods and current ways of thinking in the present may not serve us well in the future, nor contribute best to the future that we want to create. By envisioning the challenges of the future through an ethics-centred design process, the Future State Framework ensures that organisations and their culture are future-proof.

The Future State Framework has supported numerous organisations in reimagining their purpose and their unique economic and social role in a world where profit is rapidly and radically being redefined. Shareholder demand is moving beyond financial return, and social expectations toward the role of corporations are shifting dramatically into the future.

The methodology helps organisations chart a course through this transformation by mapping and targeting their desired future state and developing pathways for realising it. It been designed to support and guide both organisations facing an imminent burning platform and those wanting to be future forward and leading – giving them the insight to act with purpose – fit for the many possibilities the future might hold.

If you are interested in discussing any of the topics raised in this article in more depth with The Ethics Centre’s consulting team, please make an enquiry via our website.

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What is the future of business?

The youth are rising. Will we listen?

When we settled on Town Hall as the venue for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) 2020, my first instinct was to consider a choir. The venue lends itself to this so perfectly and the image of a choir – a group of unified voices – struck me as an excellent symbol for the activism that is defining our times.

I attended Spinifex Gum in Melbourne last year, and instantly knew that this was the choral work for the festival this year. The music and voices were incredibly beautiful but what struck me most was the authenticity of the young women in Marliya Choir. The song cycle created by Felix Riebel and Lyn Gardner for Marliya Choir embarks on a truly emotional journey through anger, sadness, indignation and hope.

A microcosm of a much larger phenomenon, Marliya’s work shows us that within these groups of unified voices the power of youth is palpable.

Every city, suburb and school has their own Greta Thurnbergs: young people acutely aware of the dangerous reality we are now living in, who are facing the future knowing that without immediate and significant change their future selves will risk incredible hardship.

In 2012, FODI presented a session with Shiv Malik and Ed Howker on the coming inter-generational war, and it seems this war has well and truly begun. While a few years ago the provocations were mostly around economic power, the stakes have quickly risen. Now power, the environment, quality of life, and the future of the planet are all firmly on the table. This has escalated faster than our speakers in 2012 were predicting.

For a decade now the FODI stage has been a place for discussing uncomfortable truths. And it doesn’t get more uncomfortable than thinking about the future world and systems the young will inherit.

What value do we place on a world we won’t be participating in?

Our speakers alongside Marliya Choir will be tackling big issues from their perspective: mental health, gender, climate change, indigenous incarceration, and governance.

First Nation Youth Activist Dujuan Hoosan, School Strike for Climate’s Daisy Jeffery, TEDx speaker Audrey Mason-Hyde , mental health advocate Seethal Bency and journalist Dylan Storer add their voices to this choir of young Australians asking us to pay attention.

Aged from 12 to 21, their courage in stepping up to speak in such a large forum is to be commended and supported.

With a further FODI twist, you get to choose how much you wish to pay for this session. You choose how important you think it is to listen to our youth. What value do you put on the opinions of the young compared to our established pundits?

Unforgivable is a new commission, combining the music from the incredible Spinifex Gum show I saw, with new songs from the choir and some of the boldest young Australian leaders, all coming together to share their hopes and fears about the future.

It is an invitation to come and to listen. To consider if you share the same vision of the future these young leaders see. Unforgivable is an opportunity to see just what’s at stake in the war that is raging between young and old.

These are not tomorrow’s leaders, these young people are trying to lead now.

Tickets to Unforgivable, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on Saturday 4 April are on sale now. 

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What value do you place on hearing our youth?

This is what comes after climate grief

I can’t really lie about this. Like so many other people in the climate community hailing from Australia, I expected the impacts of climate change to come later. I didn’t define ‘later’ as much other than ‘not now, not next year, but some time after that’.

Instead, I watched in horror as Australia burst into flames. As the worst of the fire season passes, a simple question has come to the fore. What made these bushfires so bad?

The Bureau of Meteorology confirms that weather conditions have been tilting in favour of worsening fire for many decades. The ‘Forest Fire Danger Index’, a metric for this, hit records in many parts of Australia, this summer.

The Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub is unequivocal: “Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia…These trends are very likely to increase into the future”.



Bushfire has been around for centuries, but the burning of fossil fuels by humans has catalysed and worsened it.

Having moved away from Australia, I didn’t experience the physical impacts of the crisis. Not the air thick with smoke, or the dark brown sky or the bone-dry ground.

But I am permanently plugged into the internet, and the feelings expressed there fed into my feed every day. There was shock at the scale and at the science fictionness of it all. Fire plumes that create their own lightning? It can’t be real.

The world grieved at the loss of human life, the loss of beautiful animals and ecosystems, and the permanent damage to homes and businesses.

Rapidly, that grief pivoted into action. The fundraisers were numerous and effective. Comedian Celeste Barber, who set out to raise an impressive $30,000 AUD, ended up at around $51 million. Erin Riley’s ‘Find a Bed’ program worked tirelessly to help displaced Australians find somewhere to sleep. Australians put their heads down and got to work.

It’s inspiring to be a part of. But that work doesn’t stop with funding. Early estimates on the emissions produced by the fires are deeply unsettling. “Our preliminary estimates show that by now, CO2 emissions from this fire season are as high or higher than the CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic emissions in Australia. So effectively, they are at least doubling this year’s carbon footprint of Australia”, research scientist Pep Canadell told Future Earth.

There is some uncertainty about whether the forests destroyed by the blaze will grow back and suck that released carbon back into the Earth. But it is likely that as fire seasons get worse, the balance of the natural flow of carbon between the ground and the sky will begin to tip in a bad direction.

Like smoke plumes that create their own ‘dry lightning’ that ignite new fires, there is a deep cyclical horror to the emissions of bushfire.

It taps into a horror that is broader and deeper than the immediate threat; something lingers once the last flames flicker out. We begin to feel that the planet’s physical systems are unresponsive. We start to worry that if we stopped emissions, these ‘positive feedbacks’ (a classic scientific misnomer) mean we’re doomed regardless of our actions.

“An epidemic of giving up scares me far more than the predictions of climate scientists”, I told an international news journalist, as we sat in a coffee shop in Oslo. It was pouring rain, and it was warm enough for a single layer and a raincoat – incredibly strange for the city in January.

She seemed surprised. “That scares you?” she asked, bemused. Yes. If we give up, emissions become higher than they would be otherwise, and so we are more exposed to the uncertainties and risks of a planet that starts to warm itself. That is paralysing, to me.

It is scarier than the climate change denial of the 2010s, because it has far greater mass appeal. It’s just as pseudoscientific as denialism. “Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down”, wrote climate scientist Kate Marvel, in late 2018.

In response to Jonathan Franzen’s awful 2019 essay in which he urges us to give up, Marvel explained why ‘positive feedbacks’ are more reason to work hard to reduce emissions, not less. “It is precisely the fact that we understand the potential driver of doom that changes it from a foregone conclusion to a choice”.

A choice. Just as the immediate horrors of the fires translated into copious and unstoppable fundraising, the longer-term implications of this global shift in our habitat could precipitate aggressive, passionate action to place even more pressure on the small collection of companies and governments that are contributing to our increasing danger.

There are so many uncertainties inherent in the way the planet will respond to a warming atmosphere. I know, with absolute certainty, that if we succumb to paralysis and give up on change, then our exposure to these risks will increase greatly.

We can translate the horror of those dark red months into a massive effort to change the future. Our worst fears will only be realised if we persist with the intensely awful idea that things are so bad that we ought to give up.

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Is action the antidote to despair?

A burning question about the bushfires

At the height of the calamity that has been the current bushfire season, people demanded to know why large parts of our country were being ravaged by fires of a scale and intensity seldom seen.

In answer, blame has been sheeted home to the mounting effects of climate change, to failures in land management, to our burgeoning population, to the location of our houses, to the pernicious deeds of arsonists…

However, one thing has not made the list, ethical failure.

I suspect that few people have recognised the fires as examples of ethical failure. Yet, that is what they are. The flames were fuelled not just by high temperatures, too little rain and an overabundance of tinder-dry scrub. They were also the product of unthinking custom and practice and the mutation of core values and principles into their ‘shadow forms’.

Bushfires are natural phenomena. However, their scale and frequency are shaped by human decisions. We know this to be true through the evidence of how Indigenous Australians make different decisions – and in doing so – produce different effects.

Our First Nations people know how to control fire and through its careful application help the country to thrive. They have demonstrated (if only we had paid attention) that there was nothing inevitable about the destruction unleashed over the course of this summer. It was always open to us to make different choices which, in turn, would have led to different outcomes.

This is where ethics comes in. It is the branch of philosophy that deals with the character and quality of our decisions; decisions that shape the world. Indeed, constrained only by the laws of nature, the most powerful force on this planet is human choice. It is the task of ethics to help people make better choices by challenging norms that tend to be accepted without question.

This process asks people to go back to basics – to assess the facts of the matter, to challenge assumptions, to make conscious decisions that are informed by core values and principles. Above all, ethics requires people to accept responsibility for their decisions and all that follows.

This catastrophe was not inevitable. It is a product of our choices.

For example, governments of all persuasions are happy to tell us that they have no greater obligation than to keep us safe. It is inconceivable that our politicians would ignore intelligence suggesting that a terrorist attack might be imminent. They would not wait until there was unanimity in the room. Instead, our governments would accept the consensus view of those presenting the intelligence and take preventative action.

So, why have our political leaders ignored the warnings of fire chiefs, defence analysts and climate scientists? Why have they exposed the community to avoidable risks of bushfires? Why have they played Russian Roulette with our future?

It can only be that some part of society’s ‘ethical infrastructure’ is broken.

In the case of the fires, we could have made better decisions. Better decisions – not least in relation to the challenges of global emissions, climate change, how and where we build our homes, etc. – will make a better world in which foreseeable suffering and destruction is avoided. That is one of the gifts of ethics.

Understood in this light, there is nothing intangible about ethics. It permeates our daily lives. It is expressed in phenomena that we can sense and feel.

So, if anyone is looking for a physical manifestation of ethical failure – breathe the smoke-filled air, see the blood-red sky, feel the slap from a wall of heat, hear the roar of the firestorm.

The fires will subside. The rains will come. The seasons will turn. However, we will still be left to decide for the future. Will our leaders have the moral courage to put the public interest before their political fortunes? Will we make the ethical choice and decide for a better world?

It is our task, at The Ethics Centre, to help society do just that.

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Are we all responsible for the fires?

To fix the problem of deepfakes we must treat the cause, not the symptoms

This article was written for, and first published by The Guardian. Republished with permission.

Once technology is released, it’s like herding cats. Why do we continue to let the tech sector manage its own mess?

We haven’t yet seen a clear frontrunner emerge as the Democratic candidate for the 2020 US election. But I’ve been interested in another race – the race to see which buzzword is going to be a pivotal issue in political reporting, hot takes and the general political introspection that elections bring. In 2016 it was “fake news”. “Deepfake” is shoring up as one of the leading candidates for 2020.

This week the US House of Representatives intelligence committee asked Facebook, Twitter and Google what they were planning to do to combat deepfakes in the 2020 election. And it’s a fair question. With a bit of work, deepfakes could be convincing and misleading enough to make fake news look like child’s play.

Deepfake, a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”, refers to AI software that can superimpose a digital composite face on to an existing video (and sometimes audio) of a person.

The term first rose to prominence when Motherboard reported on a Reddit user who was using AI to superimpose the faces of film stars on to existing porn videos, creating (with varying degrees of realness) porn starring Emma Watson, Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson and an array of other female celebrities.

However, there are also a range of political possibilities. Filmmaker Jordan Peele highlighted some of the harmful potential in an eerie video produced with Buzzfeed, in which he literally puts his words in Barack Obama’s mouth. Satisfying or not, hearing Obama call US president Trump a “total and complete dipshit” is concerning, given he never said it.

Just as concerning as the potential for deepfakes to be abused is that tech platforms are struggling to deal with them. For one thing, their content moderation issues are well documented. Most recently, a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi, slowed and pitch-edited to make her appear drunk, was tweeted by Trump. Twitter did not remove the video, YouTube did, and Facebook de-ranked it in the news feed.

For another, they have already tried, and failed, to moderate deepfakes. In a laudably fast response to the non-consensual pornographic deepfakes, Twitter, Gfycat, Pornhub and other platforms quickly acted to remove them and develop technology to help them do it.

However, once technology is released it’s like herding cats. Deepfakes are a moving feast and as soon as moderators find a way of detecting them, people will find a workaround.

But while there are important questions about how to deal with deepfakes, we’re making a mistake by siloing it off from broader questions and looking for exclusively technological solutions. We made the same mistake with fake news, where the prime offender was seen to be tech platforms rather than the politicians and journalists who had created an environment where lies could flourish.

The furore over deepfakes is a microcosm for the larger social discussion about the ethics of technology. It’s pretty clear the software shouldn’t have been developed and has led – and will continue to lead – to disproportionately more harm than good. And the lesson wasn’t learned. Recently the creator of an app called “DeepNude”, designed to give a realistic approximation of how a woman would look naked based on a clothed image, cancelled the launch fearing “the probability that people will misuse it is too high”.

What the legitimate use for this app is, I don’t know, but the response is revealing in how predictable it is. Reporting triggers some level of public outcry, at which suddenly tech developers realise the error of their ways. Theirs is the conscience of hindsight: feeling bad after the fact rather than proactively looking for ways to advance the common good, treat people fairly and minimise potential harm. By now we should know better and expect more.

“Technology is a way of seeing the world. It’s a kind of promise – that we can bring the world under our control and bend it to our will.”

Why then do we continue to let the tech sector manage its own mess? Partly it’s because it is difficult, but it’s also because we’re still addicted to the promise of technology even as we come to criticise it. Technology is a way of seeing the world. It’s a kind of promise – that we can bring the world under our control and bend it to our will. Deepfakes afford us the ability to manipulate a person’s image. We can make them speak and move as we please, with a ready-made, if weak, moral defence: “No people were harmed in the making of this deepfake.”

But in asking for a technological fix to deepfakes, we’re fuelling the same logic that brought us here. Want to solve Silicon Valley? There’s an app for that! Eventually, maybe, that app will work. But we’re still treating the symptoms, not the cause.

The discussion around ethics and regulation in technology needs to expand to include more existential questions. How should we respond to the promises of technology? Do we really want the world to be completely under our control? What are the moral costs of doing this? What does it mean to see every unfulfilled desire as something that can be solved with an app?

Yes, we need to think about the bad actors who are going to use technology to manipulate, harm and abuse. We need to consider the now obvious fact that if a technology exists, someone is going to use it to optimise their orgasms. But we also need to consider what it means when the only place we can turn to solve the problems of technology is itself technological.

Big tech firms have an enormous set of moral and political responsibilities and it’s good they’re being asked to live up to them. An industry-wide commitment to basic legal standards, significant regulation and technological ethics will go a long way to solving the immediate harms of bad tech design. But it won’t get us out of the technological paradigm we seem to be stuck in. For that we don’t just need tech developers to read some moral philosophy. We need our politicians and citizens to do the same.

“At the moment we’re dancing around the edges of the issue, playing whack-a-mole as new technologies arise.”

At the moment we’re dancing around the edges of the issue, playing whack-a-mole as new technologies arise. We treat tech design and development like it’s inevitable. As a result, we aim to minimise risks rather than look more deeply at the values, goals and moral commitments built into the technology. As well as asking how we stop deepfakes, we need to ask why someone thought they’d be a good idea to begin with. There’s no app for that.

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Does the truth matter?

The new rules of ethical design in tech

This article was written for, and first published by Atlassian.

Because tech design is a human activity, and there’s no such thing as human behaviour without ethics.

One of my favourite memes for the last few years is This is Fine. It’s a picture of a dog sitting in a burning building with a cup of coffee. “This is fine,” the dog announces. “I’m okay with what’s happening. It’ll all turn out okay.” Then the dog takes a sip of coffee and melts into the fire.

Working in ethics and technology, I hear a lot of “This is fine.” The tech sector has built (and is building) processes and systems that exclude vulnerable users by designing “nudges” that influence users, users who end up making privacy concessions they probably shouldn’t. Or, designing by hardwiring preconceived notions of right and wrong into technologies that will shape millions of people’s lives.

But many won’t acknowledge they could have ethics problems.

Credit: KC Green. https://topatoco.com/collections/this-is-fine

This is partly because, like the dog, they don’t concede that the fire might actually burn them in the end. Lots of people working in tech are willing to admit that someone else has a problem with ethics, but they’re less likely to believe is that they themselves have an issue with ethics.

And I get it. Many times, people are building products that seem innocuous, fun, or practical. There’s nothing in there that makes us do a moral double-take.

The problem is, of course, that just because you’re not able to identify a problem doesn’t mean you won’t melt to death in the sixth frame of the comic. And there are issues you need to address in what you’re building, because tech design is a human activity, and there’s no such thing as human behaviour without ethics.

Your product probably already has ethical issues

To put it bluntly: if you think you don’t need to consider ethics in your design process because your product doesn’t generate any ethical issues, you’ve missed something. Maybe your product is still fine, but you can’t be sure unless you’ve taken the time to consider your product and stakeholders through an ethical lens.

Look at it this way: If you haven’t made sure there are no bugs or biases in your design, you haven’t been the best designer you could be. Ethics is no different – making people (and their products) the best they can be.

Take Pokémon Go, for example. It’s an awesome little mobile game that gives users the chance to feel like Pokémon trainers in the real world. And it’s a business success story, recording a profit of $3 billion at the end of 2018. But it’s exactly the kind of innocuous-seeming app most would think doesn’t have any ethical issues.

But it does. It distracted drivers, brought users to dangerous locations in the hopes of catching Pokémon, disrupted public infrastructure, didn’t seek the consent of the sites it included in the game, unintentionally excluded rural neighbourhoods (many populated by racial minorities), and released Pokémon in offensive locations (for instance, a poison gas Pokémon in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC).

Quite a list, actually.

This is a shame, because all of this meant that Pokemon Go was not the best game it could be. And as designers, that’s the goal – to make something great. But something can’t be great unless it’s good, and that’s why designers need to think about ethics.

Here are a few things you can embed within your design processes to make sure you’re not going to burn to death, ethically speaking, when you finally launch.

1. Start with ethical pre-mortems

When something goes wrong with a product, we know it’s important to do a postmortem to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Postmortems happen all the time in ethics. A product is launched, a scandal erupts, and ethicists wind up as talking heads on the news discussing what went wrong.

As useful as postmortems are, they can also be ways of washing over negligent practices. When something goes wrong and a spokesperson says, “We’re going to look closely at what happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I want to say, “Why didn’t you do that before you launched?” That’s what an ethical premortem does.

Sit down with your team and talk about what would make this product an ethical failure. Then work backwards to the root causes of that possible failure. How could you mitigate that risk? Can you reduce the risk enough to justify going forward with the project? Are your systems, processes and teams set up in a way that enables ethical issues to be identified and addressed?

Tech ethicist Shannon Vallor provides a list of handy premortem questions:

  • How Could This Project Fail for Ethical Reasons?
  • What Would be the Most Likely Combined Causes of Our Ethical Failure/Disaster?
  • What Blind Spots Would Lead Us Into It?
  • Why Would We Fail to Act?
  • Why/How Would We Choose the Wrong Action?

What Systems/Processes/Checks/Failsafes Can We Put in Place to Reduce Failure Risk?

2. Ask the Death Star question

The book Rogue One: Catalyst tells the story of how the galactic empire managed to build the Death Star. The strategy was simple: take many subject matter experts and get them working in silos on small projects. With no team aware of what other teams were doing, only a few managers could make sense of what was actually being built.

Small teams, working in a limited role on a much larger project, with limited connection to the needs, goals, objectives or activities of other teams. Sound familiar? Siloing is a major source of ethical negligence. Teams whose workloads, incentives, and interests are limited to their particular contribution seldom can identify the downstream effects of their contribution, or what might happen when it’s combined with other work.

While it’s unlikely you’re secretly working for a Sith Lord, it’s still worth asking:

  • What’s the big picture here? What am I actually helping to build?
  • What contribution is my work making and are there ethical risks I might need to know about?
  • Are there dual-use risks in this product that I should be designing against?
  • If there are risks, are they worth it, given the potential benefits?

3. Get red teaming

Anyone who has worked in security will know that one of the best ways to know if a product is secure is to ask someone else to try to break it. We can use a similar concept for ethics. Once we’ve built something we think is great, ask some people to try to prove that it isn’t.

Red teams should ask:

  • What are the ethical pressure points here?
  • Have you made trade-offs between competing values/ideals? If so, have you made them in the right way?
  • What happens if we widen the circle of possible users to include some people you may not have considered?
  • Was this project one we should have taken on at all? (If you knew you were building the Death Star, it’s unlikely you could ever make it an ethical product. It’s a WMD.)
  • Is your solution the only one? Is it the best one?

4. Decide what your product’s saying

Ever seen a toddler discover a new toy? Their first instinct is to test the limits of what they can do. They’re not asking What was the intention of the designer, they’re testing how the item can satisfy their needs, whatever they may be. In this case they chew it, throw it, paint with it, push it down a slide… a toddler can’t access the designer’s intention. The only prompts they have are those built into the product itself.

It’s easy to think about our products as though they’ll only be used in the way we want them to be used. In reality, though, technology design and usage is more like a two-way conversation than a set of instructions. Given this, it’s worth asking: if the user had no instructions on how to use this product, what would they infer purely from the design?

For example, we might infer from the hidden-away nature of some privacy settings on social media platforms that we shouldn’t tweak our privacy settings. Social platforms might say otherwise, but their design tells a different story. Imagine what your product would be saying to a user if you let it speak for itself.

This is doubly important, because your design is saying something. All technology is full of affordances – subtle prompts that invite the user to engage with it in some ways rather than others. They’re there whether you intend them to be or not, but if you’re not aware of what your design affords, you can’t know what messages the user might be receiving.

Design teams should ask:

  • What could a infer from the design about how a product can/should be used?
  • How do you want people to use this?
  • How don’t you want people to use this?
  • Do your design choices and affordances reflect these expectations?
  • Are you unnecessarily preventing other legitimate uses of the technology?

5. Don’t forget to show your work

One of the (few) things I remember from my high school math classes is this: you get one mark for getting the right answer, but three marks for showing the working that led you there.

It’s also important for learning: if you don’t get the right answer, being able to interrogate your process is crucial (that’s what a post-mortem is).

For ethical design, the process of showing your work is about being willing to publicly defend the ethical decisions you’ve made. It’s a practical version of The Sunlight Test – where you test your intentions by asking if you’d do what you were doing if the whole world was watching.

Ask yourself (and your team):

  • Are there any limitations to this product?
  • What trade-offs have you made (e.g. between privacy and user-customisation)?
  • Why did you build this product (what problems are you solving?)
  • Does this product risk being misused? If so, what have you done to mitigate those risks?
  • Are there any users who will have trouble using this product (for instance, people with disabilities)? If so, why can’t you fix this and why is it worth releasing the product, given it’s not universally accessible?
  • How probable is it that the good and bad effects are likely to happen?

Ethics is an investment

I’m constantly amazed at how much money, time and personnel organisations are willing to invest in culture initiatives, wellbeing days and the like, but who haven’t spent a penny on ethics. There’s a general sense that if you’re a good person, then you’ll build ethical stuff, but the evidence overwhelmingly proves that’s not the case. Ethics needs to be something you invest in learning about, building resources and systems around, recruiting for, and incentivising.

It’s also something that needs to be engaged in for the right reasons. You can’t go into this process because you think it’s going to make you money or recruit the best people, because you’ll abandon it the second you find a more effective way to achieve those goals. A lot of the talk around ethics in technology at the moment has a particular flavour: anti-regulation. There is a hope that if companies are ethical, they can self-regulate.

I don’t see that as the role of ethics at all. Ethics can guide us toward making the best judgements about what’s right and what’s wrong. It can give us precision in our decisions, a language to explain why something is a problem, and a way of determining when something is truly excellent. But people also need justice: something to rely on if they’re the least powerful person in the room. Ethics has something to say here, but so do law and regulation.

If your organisation says they’re taking ethics seriously, ask them how open they are to accepting restraint and accountability. How much are they willing to invest in getting the systems right? Are they willing to sack their best performer if that person isn’t conducting themselves the way they should?

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Can you accidentally create ethical failure in tech?

Following a year of scandals, what's the future for boards?

As guardians of moral behaviour, company boards continue to be challenged. After a year of wall-to-wall scandals, especially within the Banking and Finance sector, many are asking whether there are better ways to oversee what is going on in a business.

A series of damning inquiries, including the recent Royal Commission into Financial Services, has spurred much discussion about holding boards to account – but far less about the structure of boards and whose interests they serve.

Ethicist Lesley Cannold expressed her frustration at this state of affairs in a speech to the finance industry, saying the Royal Commission was a lost opportunity to look at “root and branch” reform.

“We need to think of changes that will propel different kinds of leaders into place and rate their performance according to different criteria – criteria that relate to the wellbeing of a range of stakeholders, not just shareholders,” she said at the Crossroads: The 2019 Banking and Finance Oath Conference in Sydney in August.

This issue is close to the heart of Andrew Linden, PhD researcher on German corporate governance and a sessional Lecturer in RMIT’s School of Management. Linden favours the German system of having an upper supervisory board, with 50 per cent of directors elected by employees, and a lower management board to handle the day-to-day operations.

This system was imposed on the Germans after World War II to ensure companies were more socially responsible but, despite its advantages, has not spread to the English-speaking world, says Linden.

“For 40 years, corporate Australia has been allowed to get away with the idea that all they had to do was to serve shareholders and to maximise the value returned to shareholders.

“Now, that’s never been a feature of the Corporate Law. And directors have had very specific duties, publicly imposed duties, that they ought to have been fulfilling – but they haven’t.”

It is the responsibility of directors of public companies to govern in the corporation’s best interests and also ensure that corporations do not impose costs on the wider community, he says.

“All these piecemeal responses to the Banking Royal Commission are just Band-Aids on bullet wounds. They are not actually going to fix the problem. All through these corporate governance debates, there has not been too much of a focus on board design.”

The German solution – a two-tier model

This board structure, proposed by Linden, would have non-executive directors on an upper (supervisory) board, which would be legally tasked with monitoring and control, approving strategy and appointing auditors.

A lower, management board would have executive directors responsible for implementing the approved strategy and day-to-day management.

This structure would separate non-executive from executive directors and create clear, legally separate roles for both groups, he says.

“Research into European banks suggests having employee and union representation on supervisory boards, combined with introduction of employee elected works councils to deal with management over day-to-day issues, reduces systemic risk and holds executives accountable,” according to Linden, who wrote about the subject with Warren Staples (senior lecturer in Management, RMIT University) in The Conversation last year.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden also have employee directors on corporate boards and the model is being proposed in the US by Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Says Linden: “All the solutions that people in the English-speaking world typically think about are ownership-based solutions. So, you either go for co-operative ownership as an alternative to shareholder ownership, or, alternatively, it’s public ownership. All of these debates over decades have been about ‘who are the best owners’, not necessarily about the design of their governing bodies.”

Linden says research shows the riskiest banks are those that are English-speaking, for-profit, shareholder-dominated, overseen by an independent-director-dominated board.

“And they have been the ones that have imposed the most cost on communities,” he says.

 Outsourcing the board

Allowing consultant-like companies to oversee governance is a solution proposed by two law academics in the US, who say they are “trying to encourage people to innovate in governance in ways that are fundamentally different than just little tweaks at the edges”.

Law professors Stephen Bainbridge (UCLA) and  Todd Henderson (University of Chicago) say organisations are familiar with the idea of outsourcing responsibilities to lawyers, accountants, financial service providers.

“We envision a corporation, say Microsoft or ExxonMobil, hiring another company, say Boards-R-Us, to provide it with director services, instead of hiring 10 or so separate ‘companies’ to do so,” Henderson explained in an article.

 “Just as other service firms, like Kirkland and Ellis, McKinsey and Company, or KPMG, are staffed by professionals with large support networks, so too would BSPs [board service providers] bring the various aspects of director services under a single roof. We expect the gains to efficiency from such a move to be quite large.

“We argue that hiring a BSP to provide board services instead of a loose group of sole proprietorships [non-executive directors] will increase board accountability, both from markets and judicial supervision.”

Outsourcing to specialists is a familiar concept, said Bainbridge in a video interview with The Conference Board.

“Would you rather deal with you know twelve part-timers who get hired in off the street, or would you rather deal with a professional with a team of professionals?”

Your director is a robot

A Hong Kong venture capital firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, appointed the first-ever robot director to its board in 2014, giving it the power to veto investment decisions deemed as too risky by its artificial intelligence.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, told company directors that he had initially thought the robo-director, named Vital, was a mere publicity stunt.

However, five years on “… the company is still in business. Vital is still on the Board. And waiting in the wings is her successor: Vital 2.0,” Finkel said at a governance summit held by the Australian Institute of Company Directors in March.

“The experiment was so successful that the CEO predicts we’ll see fully autonomous companies – able to operate without any human involvement – in the coming decade.

Stop and think about it: fully autonomous companies able to operate without any human involvement. There’d be no-one to come along to AICD summits!”

Dr Finkel reassured his audience that their jobs were safe … for now.

“… those director-bots would still lack something vital – something truly vital – and that’s what we call artificial general intelligence: the digital equivalent of the package deal of human abilities, human insights and human experiences,” he said.

“The experts tell us that the world of artificial general intelligence is unlikely to be with us until 2050, perhaps longer. Thus, shareholders, customers and governments who want that package deal will have to look to you for quite some time,” he told the audience.

“They will rely on the value that you, and only you, can bring, as a highly capable human being, to your role.”

Linden agrees that robo-directors have limitations and that, before people get too excited about the prospect of technology providing the solution to governance, they need to get back to basics.

“All these issues to do with governance failures get down to questions of ethics and morality and lawfulness – on making judgments about what is appropriate conduct,” he says, adding that it was “hopelessly naïve” to expect machines to be able to make moral judgements.

“These systems depend on who designs them, what kind of data goes into them. That old analogy ‘garbage in, garbage out’ is just as applicable to artificial intelligence as it is to human systems.”

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.

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Boards. Are there better ways to oversee what is going on in a business?