Climate change and the next migrant crisis

Are we prepared for climate change and the next migrant crisis?

Climate change and the next migrant crisis

A powerful infographic published in 2014, predicted how many years it would take for a world city to drown.

It used data from NASA, Sea Level Explorer, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Venice will be the first to go under apparently, its canals rising to wetly throttle the city of love. Amsterdam is set to follow, Hamburg next.

Other tools play out the encroachment of rising tides on our coasts. This one developed by EarthTime shows Sydney airport as a large puddle if temperatures increase by four degrees. There’s also research suggesting our ancestors may one day look down to see fish nibbling on the Opera House sails.

Climate change refugees will become reality

Sea level rise is just one effect of anthropogenic climate change that would make a place uninhabitable or inhospitable to humankind. It’s also relatively slow. Populations in climate vulnerable hotspots face a slew of other shove factors, too.

Already, we are seeing a rising frequency of extreme weather events. Climate change was linked to increasingly destructive tropical cyclones in a report published in Nature last year, and Australia’s Climate Council attributed the same to earlier and more dangerous fire seasons. Rapidly changing ecosystems will impact water resources, crop productivity, and patterns of familiar and unfamiliar disease. Famine, drought, poverty and illness are the horsemen saddling up.

Some will die as a result of these events. Others, if they are able, will choose to stay. The far sighted and privileged may pre-empt them, relocating in advance of crisis or discomfort.

These migrants can be expected to move through the ‘correct’ channels, under the radar of nativist suspicion. (‘When is an immigrant not an immigrant?’ asks Afua Hirsch. ‘When they’re rich’.)

But many more will become displaced peoples, forcibly de-homed. Research estimates this number could be anywhere between 50 million and 1 billion in the 21st century. This will prompt new waves of interstate and international flows, and a resultant redistribution and intensification of pressures and tensions on the global map.

How will the world respond?

Where will they go? What is the ethical obligation of states to welcome and provide for them? With gross denialism characterising global policies towards climate change, and intensifying hostility locking down national borders, how prepared are we to contend with this challenge to come?

“You can’t wall them out,” Obama recently told the BBC. “Not for long.”

While interstate climate migration (which may already be occurring in Tasmania) will incur infrastructural and cultural problems, international migration is a whole and humongous other ethical conundrum. Not least because currently, climate change migrants have almost no legal protections.

Is a person who moves because of a sudden, town levelling cyclone more entitled to the status of climate migrant or refugee (and the protection it affords) than someone who migrates as a result of the slow onset attrition of their livelihood due to climate change?

Who makes the rules?

Does sudden, violent circumstance carry a greater ethical demand for hospitality than if, after many years of struggle, a Mexican farmer can no longer put food on the table because his land has turned to dust? Does the latter qualify as a climate or economic migrant, or both?

Somewhat ironically (and certainly depressingly), the movement of people to climate ‘havens’ will place stress on those environmental sanctuaries themselves, potentially leading to concentrated degradation, pollution and threat to non-human nature. (On the other hand, climate migration could allow for nature to reclaim the places these migrants have left.)

There is also the argument that, once migrants from developing countries have been integrated into a host country, their carbon footprint will increase to resemble that of their new fellow citizenry – resulting in larger CO2 emissions. From this perspective, put forward by Philip Cafaro and Winthrop Staples, it is in the interests of the planet for prosperous countries to limit their welcome.

Not that privileged populations need much convincing. Jealous fear of future scarcity, a globalisation inflamed resentment towards the Other, a sense that modernity has failed to deliver on its promise of wholesale bounty: all these are conspiring to create increasingly tribalised societies that enable the xenophobic agendas of their governments. A recent poll showed that 46 percent of Australians believe immigration should be reduced, a percentage consistent with attitudes worldwide.



A divided world

In the US, there’s Trump’s grand ‘us vs them’ symbol of a wall. As reported in the Times, German lawmakers are comparing refugees to wolves. In Italy, tilting towards populism and the right, a mayor was arrested after transforming his small town into a migrant sanctuary.

Closer to home, in a country where the 27 years without recession could be linked to immigration, there’s Scott Morrison’s newly proposed immigration cuts. There’s Senator Anning blaming the Christchurch massacre on Muslim immigration. There’s the bipartisan support for the prospects, wellbeing and mental health of asylum seekers to deteriorate to such an extent, the UN human rights council described it as ‘massive abuse’.

Yet the local effects of climate change don’t have a local origin. Causality extends beyond borders, piling miles high at the feet of industrialised countries. Nations like the US and Australia enjoy high standards of living largely because we have been pillaging and burning fossil fuels for more than a century. Yet those least culpable will bear the heaviest cost.

This, argues the author of a paper published in Ethics, Policy and Environment, warrants a different ethical framework than that which applies to other kinds of migration. He concludes that industrialised nations “have a moral responsibility … to compensate for harms that their actions have caused”.

This responsibility may include investing in less developed countries to mitigate climate change effects, writes the author. But it also morally obliges giving access, security and residence to those with nowhere else to go.

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What level of protection do you expect from another country?


Australia, it’s time to curb immigration


A majority of Australians welcome immigrants. So why then do opinion polls of young and old voters alike across the political divide, now find majority support for reducing our immigration intake?

Perhaps it could be for the same reason that faith in our political system is dwindling at a time of strong economic growth. Australia is the ‘lucky country’ that hasn’t had a recession in the last 28 years.

Yet we’ve actually had two recessions in this time if we consider GDP on a per-capita basis. This, combined with stagnant real wage growth and sharp increases in congestion and the price of housing and electricity in our major cities, could explain why the Australian success story is inconsistent with the lived experience of so many of us.


The decline of the Australian dream?

Our current intake means immigration now acts as a ponzi scheme.

The superficial figure of a growing headline GDP fuelled by an increasing population masks the reality of an Australian dream that is becoming increasingly out of reach for immigrants and native-born Australians alike.

We’ve been falsely told we’ve weathered economic calamities that have stunned the rest of the world. When taken on a per-capita basis, our economy has actually experienced negative growth periods that closely mirror patterns in the United States.

We’re rightly told we need hardworking immigrants to help foot the bill for our ageing population by raising productivity and tax revenue. Yet this cost is also offset when their ageing family members or other dependents are brought over. Since preventing them from doing so may be cruel, surely it’s fairer to lessen our dependence on their intake if we can?

A lack of infrastructure

Over 200,000 people settle in Australia every year, mostly in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. That’s the equivalent of one Canberra or greater Newcastle area a year.

Unlike the United States, most economic opportunities are concentrated in a few major cities dotting our shores. This combined with the failures of successive state and federal governments to build the infrastructure and invest in the services needed to cater for record population growth levels driven majorly by immigration.

A failure to rezone for an appropriate supply of land, mean our schools are becoming crowded, our real estate prohibitively expensive, our commutes are longer and more depressing, and our roads are badly congested.

Today, infrastructure is being built, land is finally being rezoned to accommodate higher population density and more housing stock in the outer suburbs, and the Prime Minister has made regional job growth one of his major priorities.

But these issues should have been fixed ten years ago and it’s increasingly unlikely that they will be executed efficiently and effectively enough to catch up to where they need to be should current immigration intake levels continue for the years to come.

Our governments have proven to be terrible central planners, often rejecting or watering down the advice of independent expert bodies like Infrastructure Australia and the Productivity Commission due to political factors.

Why would we trust them to not only get the answer right now, but to execute it correctly? Our newspapers are filled daily with stories about light rail and road link projects that are behind schedule.

All of it paid for by taxpayers like us.

Foreign workers or local graduates?

Consider also the perverse reality of foreign workers brought to our shores to fill supposed skill gaps who then struggle to find work in their field and end up in whatever job they can get.

Meanwhile, you’ll find two separate articles in the same week. One from industry groups cautioning against cutting skilled immigration due to shortages in the STEM fields. The other reporting that Australian STEM graduates are struggling to find work in their field.

Why would employers invest resources in training local graduates when there’s a ready supply of experienced foreign workers? What incentive do universities have to step in and fill this gap when their funding isn’t contingent on employability outcomes?

This isn’t about nativism. The immigrants coming here certainly have a stake in making sure their current or future children can find meaningful work and obtain education and training to make them job ready.

There’s only one way to hold our governments accountable so the correct and sometimes tough decisions needed to sustain our way of life and make the most of the boon that immigration has been for the country, are made. It’s to wean them off their addiction to record immigration levels.

Lest the ponzi scheme collapse.

And frank conversations about the quantity and quality of immigration that the sensible centre of politics once held, increasingly become the purview of populist minor parties who have experienced resurgence on the back of widespread, unanswered frustrations about unsustainable immigration that we are ill-prepared for.

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Do you have a right to protect your good fortune?


People with dementia need to be heard – not bound and drugged


It began in Oakden. Or, it began with the implosion of one of the most monstrously run aged care facilities in Australia, as tales of abuse and neglect finally came to light.

That was May 2017. Two years on, we are in the midst of the first Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, announced following a recommendation by the Scott Morrison government.

The first hearings began this year in Oakland’s city of Adelaide. They have seen countless brave witnesses come forward to share their experiences of what it’s like to live within the aged care system or see a loved one deteriorate or die – sometimes peacefully, sometimes painfully – within it.

In May, the third hearing round will take place in Sydney. This round will hear from people in residential aged care, with a focus on people living with dementia – who make up over 50 percent of residents in these facilities.

With our burgeoning ageing population, the number of people being diagnosed with dementia is expected to increase to 318 people per day by 2025 and more than 650 people by 2056.

Encompassing a range of different illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy body disease, its symptoms are particularly cruel, dissolving intellect, memory and identity. In essence, dementia describes the gradual estrangement of a person from themselves – and from everyone who knew them.

It is one of the most prevalent health problems affecting developed nations today – and one of the most feared. Contrary to widespread belief, one in 15 sufferers are in their thirties, forties and fifties.


Physical restraints

How do you manage these incurable conditions? How can you humanely care for the remnants of a person who becomes more and more unrecognisable?

One thing the Royal Commission has made clear: you don’t do it by defaulting to dehumanising mechanisms of restraint.

Unlike in the UK or the US, there are currently no regulations around use of restraints in aged care facilities. It is commonly resorted to by aged care workers if a patient displays physical aggression, or is a danger to themselves or others.

Yet it is also used in order to manage patients perceived as unruly in chronically understaffed facilities, when the risk of leaving them unsupervised is seen to be greater than the cost of depriving them their free movement and self-esteem. The problem of how to minimise harm in these conditions is an ongoing and high-pressure dilemma for staff.

Readers may remember the distressing footage from January’s 7.30 Report, in which dementia patients were seen sedated and strapped to chairs. One of them was the 72-year-old Terry Reeves. Following acts of aggression towards a male nurse, he was restrained for a total of 14 hours in a single day. His wife, however, had authorised that her husband be restrained with a lap belt if he was “a danger to himself or others”.

Maree McCabe, director of Dementia Australia, is vocal about why physical restraints should only be used as a last resort.

“We know from the research that physical restraint overall shows that it does not prevent falls,” she says. “In fact it may cause injury, and it may cause death.”

While there are circumstances where restraint may be appropriate McCabe says, “it is not there as a prolonged intervention”. Doing so, she says, “is an infringement of their human rights”.

After the 7.30program aired and one day before the Royal Commission hearings began, the federal government committed to stronger regulations around restraint, including that homes must document the alternatives they tried first.

Restraint by drugging

Another kind of restraint which has come into focus through the Royal Commission is chemical restraint. Psychotropic medication is currently prescribed to 80 percent of people with dementia in residential care – but it is only effective 10 percent of the time.

“We need to look at other interventions,” says McCabe. “The first to look at is: why is the person behaving in the way that they are? Why are they responding that way? It could be that they’re in pain. It could be something in the environment that is distressing them.”

She notes people with dementia often have “perceptual disturbances” – “things in the environment that look completely fine to us might not to someone living with dementia”. Wouldn’t you act out of character if your blue floor suddenly became a miniature sea, or a coat hanging on the door turned into the Babadook?

“It’s about people understanding of what it’s like to stand in the world of people living with dementia and simulate that experience for them,” says McCabe.

Whether through physical force or prescription, a dependence on restraint shows the extent to which dementia is misunderstood at the detriment of the autonomy and dignity of the sufferers. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that dementia is often present among other complex health problems.

Yet, and as the media may sensationally suggest, the aged care sector isn’t staffed by the callous or malicious. It is filled with good people, who are often overstretched, emotionally taxed and exhausted.

Dementia Australia is advocating for mandatory training on dementia for all people who work in aged care. This covers residential aged care, but could also extend to hospitals. Crucially, it encompasses community workers, too.

“Of the 447,000 Australians living with dementia, 70 percent live in the community and 30 percent live alone,” notes McCabe. “It’s harder to monitor community care, it’s less visible and less transparent. We have to make sure that the standards are across the board.”

It is only through listening to people living with dementia – recognising that while yes, they have a degenerative cognitive disease, they deserve to participate in the decision-making around their life and wellbeing – that our approach to it has evolved. Previously, people believed that it was dangerous to allow sufferers to cook, even to go out unaccompanied.

Likewise, it is crucial that we continue to afford people with dementia the full rights of personhood, however unfamiliar they may become. Only then can meaningful reform be made possible.

Besides, if for no other reason (and there are many other reasons), action is in our own selfish interest. The chances, after all, that you or someone you love will develop dementia are high.

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What is a better solution to care?


Is technology destroying your workplace culture?


If you were to put together a list of all the buzzwords and hot topics in business today, you’d be hard pressed to leave off culture, innovation or disruption.

They might even be the top three. In an environment of constant technological change, we’re continuously promised a new edge. We can have sleeker service, faster communication or better teamwork.

This all makes sense. Technology is the future of work. Whether it’s remote work, agile work flows or AI enhanced research, we’re going to be able to do more with less, and do it better.

For organisations who are doing good work, that’s great. And if those organisations are working for the good of society (as they should), that’s great for us all.

Without looking a gift horse in the mouth though, we should be careful technology enhances our work rather than distracting us from it.

Most of us can probably think of a time when our office suddenly had to work with a totally new, totally pointless bit of software. Out of nowhere, you’ve got a new chatbot, all your info has been moved to ‘the cloud’ or customer emails are now automated.

This is usually the result of what the comedian Eddie Izzard calls “techno-joy”. It’s the unthinking optimism that technology is a cure for all woes.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Techno-joyful managers are more headache than helper. But more than that, they can also put your culture – or worse, your ethics – in a tricky spot.

Here’s the thing about technology. It’s more than hardware or code. Technology carries a set of values with it. This happens in a few ways.


All technology works through a worldview we call ‘techno-logic’. Basically, technology aims to help us control things by making the world more efficient and effective. As we explained in our recent publication, Ethical by Design:

Techno-logic sees the world as though it is something we can shape, control, measure, store and ultimately use. According to this view, techno-logic is the ‘logic of control’. No matter the question, techno-logic has one overriding concern: how can we measure, alter, control or use this to serve our goals?

Whenever you’re engaging with technology, you’re being invited and encouraged to see the world in a really narrow way. That can be useful – problem solving happens by ignoring what doesn’t matter and focussing on what’s important. But it can also mean we ignore stuff that matters more than just getting the job done as fast or effectively as we can.

A great example of this comes from Up in the Air, a film in which Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a company who specialise in sacking people. When there are mass layoffs to be made, Bingham is there. Until technology comes to call. Research suggests video conferencing would be cheaper and more effective. Why fly people around America when you can sack someone from the comfort of your own office?

As Bingham points out, you do it because sometimes making something efficient destroys it. Imagine going on an efficient date or keeping every conversation as efficient as possible. We’d lose something essential, something rich and human.

With so much technology available to help with recruitment, performance management and customer relations, we need to be mindful that technology is fit for purpose. It’s very easy for us to be sucked into the logic of technology until suddenly, it’s not serving us, we’re serving it. Just look at journalism.

Drinking the affordance Kool-Aid

Journalism has always evolved alongside media. From newspaper to radio, podcasting and online, it’s a (sometimes) great example of an industry adapting to technological change. But at times, it over adapts, and the technological cart starts to pull the journalistic horse.



Today, online articles are ‘optimised’ to drive engagement and audience. This means stories are designed to hit a sweet spot in word count to ensure people don’t tune out, they’re given titles that are likely to generate clicks and traffic, and the kinds of things people are likely to read tend to get more attention.

A lot of that is common sense, but when it turns out that what drives engagement is emotion and conflict, this can put journalists in a bind. Are they impartial reporters of truth, lacking an audience, or do they massage journalistic principles a little so they can get the most readers they can?

I’ll leave it to you to decide which way journalism as an industry has gone. What’s worth noting is that many working in media weren’t aware of some of these changes whilst they were happening. That’s partly because they’re so close to the day-to-day work, but it can also be explained by something called ‘affordance theory’.

Affordance theory suggests that technological design contains little prompts, suggesting to users how they should interact with it. They invite users to behave in certain ways and not others. For example, Facebook makes it easier for you to respond to an article with feelings than thinking. How? All you need to do to ‘like’ a post is click a button but typing out a thought requires work.

Worse, Facebook doesn’t require you to read an article at all before you respond. It encourages quick, emotional, instinctive reactions and discourages slow thinking (through features like automatic updates to feeds and infinite scroll).

These affordances are the water we swim in when we’re using technology. As users, we need to be aware of them, but we also need to be mindful of how they can affect purpose.

Technology isn’t just a tool, it’s loaded with values, invitations and ethical judgements. If organisations don’t know what kind of ethical judgements are in the tools they’re using, they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up building something they don’t like.

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Are we capable of creating technology without negative outcomes?

Blockchain: Some ethical considerations

The development and application of blockchain technologies gives rise to two major ethical issues to do with:

  • Meeting expectations – in terms of security, privacy, efficiency and the integrity of the system, and
  • The need to avoid the inadvertent facilitation of unconscionable conduct: crime and oppressive conduct that would otherwise be offset by a mediating institution

Neither issue is unique to blockchain. Neither is likely to be fatal to its application. However, both involve considerable risks if not anticipated and proactively addressed.

At the core of blockchain technology lies the operation of a distributed ledger in which multiple nodes independently record and verify changes on the block. Those changes can signify anything – a change in ownership, an advance in understanding or consensus, an exchange of information. That is, the coding of the blockchain is independent and ‘symbolic’ of a change in a separate and distinct real-world artefact (a physical object, a social fact – such as an agreement, a state of affairs, etc.).

The potential power of blockchain technology lies in a form of distribution associated with a technically valid equivalent of ‘intersubjective agreement’. Just as in language the meaning of a word remains stable because the agreement of multiple users of that word, so blockchain ‘democratises’ agreement that a certain state of affairs exists. Prior to the evolution of blockchain, the process of verification was undertaken by one (or a few) sources of authority – exchanges and the like. They were the equivalent of the old mainframe computers that formerly dominated the computing landscape until challenged by PC enabled by the internet and world wide web.

Blockchain promises greater efficiency (perhaps), security, privacy and integrity by removing the risk (and friction) that arises out of dependence on just one or a few nodes of authority. Indeed, at least some of the appeal of blockchain is its essentially ‘anti-authoritarian’ character.

However, the first ethical risk to be managed by blockchain advocates is that they not over-hype the technology’s potential and then over-promise in terms of what it can deliver. The risk of doing either can be seen at work in an analogous field – that of medical research. Scientists and technologists often feel compelled to announce ‘breakthroughs’ that, on closer inspection, barely merit that description. Money, ego, peer group pressure – these and other factors contribute to the tendency for the ‘new’ to claim more than can be delivered.

“However, the first ethical risk to be managed by blockchain advocates is that they not over-hype the technology’s potential and then over-promise in terms of what it can deliver.”

It’s not just that this can lead to disappointment – very real harm can befall the gullible. One can foresee an indeterminate period of time during which the potential of blockchain is out of step with what is technically possible. It all depends on the scope of blockchain’s ambitions – and the ability of the distributed architecture to maintain the communications and processing power needed to manage and process an explosion in blockchain related information.

Yet, this is the lesser of blockchain’s two major ethical challenges. The greater problem arises in conditions of asymmetry of power (bargaining power, information, kinetic force, etc.) – where blockchain might enable ‘transactions’ that are the product of force, fear and fraud. All three ‘evils’ destroy the efficiency of free markets – and from an ethical point of view, that is the least of the problems.

“The greater problem arises in conditions of asymmetry of power (bargaining power, information, kinetic force, etc.) – where blockchain might enable ‘transactions’ that are the product of force, fear and fraud.”

One advantage of mediating institutions is that they can provide a measure of supervision intended to identify and constrain the misuse of markets. They can limit exploitation or the use of systems for criminal or anti-social activity. The ‘dark web’ shows what can happen when there is no mediation. Libertarians applaud the degree of freedom it accords. However, others are justifiably concerned by the facilitation of conduct that violates the fundamental norms on which any functional society must be based. It is instructive that crypto-currencies (based on blockchain) are the media of exchange in the rankest regions of the dark web.

So, how do the designers and developers of blockchain avoid becoming complicit in evil? Can they do better than existing mediating institutions? May they ‘wash their hands’ even when their tools are used in the worst of human deeds?

This article was first published here. Dr Simon Longstaff presented at The ADC Global Blockchain Summit in Adelaide on Monday 18 March on the issue of trust and the preservation of ethics in the transition to a digital world. 

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Can blockchain designers prevent dark-web misuse?

Don't harm robots

If humans bully robots there will be dire consequences

Don't harm robots

HitchBOT was a cute hitchhiking robot made up of odds and ends as an experiment to see how humans respond to new technology. Two weeks into its journey across the United States, it was beheaded in an act of vandalism.

For most of its year-long “world tour” in 2015, the Wellington-boot wearing robot was met with kindness, appearing in “selfies” with the people who had picked it up by the side of the road, taking it to football games and art galleries.

However, the destruction of HitchBOT points to a darker side of human psychology – where some people will act out their more violent and anti-social instincts on a piece of human-like technology.


A target for violence

Manufacturers of robots are well aware that their products can become a target, with plenty of reports of wilful damage. Here’s a brief timeline of the types of bullying human’s have inflicted on our robotic counterparts in recent years.

  • The makers of a wheeled robot that delivers takeaway food in business parks reported that people kick or flip over the machines for no apparent reason.
  • Homeless people in the US threw a tarpaulin over a patrolling security robot in a carpark and smeared barbeque sauce over its lenses.
  • Google’s self-driving cars have been attacked. Children in Japan have reportedly attacked robots in shopping malls, leading their designers to write programs to help them avoid small people.
  • In less than 24 hours after its launch, Microsoft’s chatbot “Tay” had been corrupted into a racist by social media users who encouraged its antisocial pronouncements.

Researchers speculated to the Boston Globe that the motives for these attacks could be boredom or annoyance at how the technology was being used. When you look at those examples together, is it fair to say we are we becoming brutes?

Programming for human behaviour

While manufacturers want us to be kind to their robots, researchers are examining the ways human behaviour is changing in response to the use of technology.

Take the style of discourse on social media, for example. You don’t have to spend long on a Facebook or Twitter discussion before you are confronted with an example of written aggression.

“I think people’s communications skills have deteriorated enormously because of the digital age,” says Tania de Jong, founder and executive producer of the Creative Innovation summit, which will be held in Melbourne in April.

“It is like people slapping each other – slap, slap slap. It is like common courtesies that we took for granted as human beings are being bypassed in some way.”

Clinical psychologist Louise Remond says words typed online are easily misinterpreted. “The verbal component is only 7 per cent of the whole message and the other components are the tone and the body language and those things you get from interacting with a person.”

The dark power of anonymity

“The disinhibition of anonymity, where people will say things they would never utter if they knew they were being identified and observed, is another factor in poor online behaviour. But, even when people are identifiable, they sometimes lose sight of how many people can see their messages.” says Remond, who works at the Kidman Centre in Sydney.

Text messaging is abbreviated communication, says Dr Robyn Johns, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the University of Technology, Sydney. “So you lose that tone and the intention around it and it can come across as being quite coarse,” she says.

Is civility at risk?

If we are rude to machines, will we be rude to each other?

If you drop your usual polite attitude when dealing with a taxi-ordering chatbot are you more likely to treat a human the same way? Possibly, says de Jong. The experience of call centre workers could be a bad omen: “A lot of people are rude to those workers, but polite to the people who work with them.”

“Perhaps there is a case to be made that we all need to be a lot more respectful,” says Jong, who founded the non-profit Creativity Australia, which aims to unlock the creativity of employees.

“A general rule, if we are going to act with integrity as whole human beings, we are not going to have different ways of talking to different things.”


The COO of “empathetic AI” company Sensum, Ben Bland, recently wrote that his company’s rule-of-thumb is to apply the principle of “don’t be a dick” to its interactions with AI.

“ … we should consider if being mean to machines will encourage us to become meaner people in general. But whether or not treating [digital personal assistant] Alexa like a disobedient slave will cause us to become bad neighbours, there’s a stickier aspect to this problem. What happens when AI is blended with ourselves?,” he asks in a column published on

“With the adoption of tools such as intelligent prosthetics, the line between human and machine is increasingly blurry. We may have to consider the social consequences of every interaction, between both natural and artificial entities, because it might soon be difficult or unethical to tell the difference.”

Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab, Dr Kate Darling, told CBC news in 2016 that research shows a relationship between people’s tendencies for empathy and the way they treat a robot.

“You know how it’s a red flag if your date is nice to you, but rude to the waiter? Maybe if your date is mean to Siri, you should not go on another date with that person.”

Research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, Michael Schrage, has forecast that “ … being bad to bots will become professionally and socially taboo in tomorrow’s workplace”.

“When “deep learning” devices emotionally resonate with their users, mistreating them feels less like breaking one’s mobile phone than kicking a kitten. The former earns a reprimand; the latter gets you fired, he writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Need to practise human-to-human skills

Johns says we are starting to get to a “tipping point” where that online style of behaviour is bleeding into the face-to-face interactions.

“There seems to be a lot more discussion around people not being able to communicate face-to-face,” she says.

When she was consulting to a large fast food provider recently, managers told her they had trouble getting young workers to interact with older customers who wanted help with the automated ordering system.

“They [the workers] hate that. They don’t want to talk to anyone. They run and hide behind the counter,” says Johns, a doctor of Philosophy with a background in human resources.

The young workers vie for positions “behind the scenes” whereas, previously, the serving positions were the most sought-after.

Johns says she expects to see etiquette classes making a comeback as employers and universities take responsibility for training people to communicate clearly, confidently and politely.

“I see it with graduating students, those who are able to communicate and present well are the first to get the jobs,” she says.

We watch and learn

Remond specialises in dealing with young people – immersed in cyber worlds since a very young age – and says there is a human instinct to connect with others, but the skills have to be practised.

“There is an element of hardwiring in all of us to be empathetic and respond to social cues,” she says.

Young people can practice social skills in a variety of real-life environments, rather than merely absorbing the poor role models they find of reality television shows.

“There are a lot of other influences. We learn so much from the social modelling of other people. You can walk into a work environment and watch how other people interact with each other at lunchtime.”

Remond says employers should ensure people who work remotely have opportunities to reconnect face-to-face. “If you are part of a team, you are going to work at your best when you feel a genuine connection with these people and you feel like you trust them and you feel like you can engage with them.”

The Ethics Alliance brings organisations together to place ethics at the centre of how we do business.

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If we are rude to machines, will we be rude to each other?

How will we teach the robots to behave themselves?

How will we teach the robots to behave themselves?

How will we teach the robots to behave themselves?

The era of artificial intelligence (AI) is upon us. On one hand it is heralded as the technology that will reshape society, making many of our occupations redundant.

On the other, it’s talked about as the solution that will unlock an unfathomable level of processing efficiency, giving rise to widespread societal benefits and enhanced intellectual opportunity for our workforce.

Either way, one thing is clear – AI has an ability to deliver insights and knowledge at a velocity that would be impossible for humans to match and it’s altering the fabric of our societies.


The impact that comes with this wave of change is remarkable. For example, IBM Watson has been used for early detection of melanoma, something very close to home considering Australians and New Zealanders have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Watson’s diagnostic capacity exceeds that of most (if not all) human doctors.

Technologists in the AI space around the world are breaking new ground weekly – that is an exciting testament to humankind’s ability. In addition to advancements in healthcare, 2018 included milestones in AI being used for autonomous vehicles, with the Australian government announcing the creation of a new national office for future transport technologies in October.

However, the power to innovate creates proportionately equal risk and opportunity – technology with the power to do good can, in almost every case, be applied for bad. And in 2019 we must move this conversation from an interesting dinner-party conversation to a central debate in businesses, government and society.

AI is a major area of ethical risk. It is being driven by technological design processes that are mostly void of robust ethical consideration – a concern that should be the top of the agenda for all of us. When technical mastery of any kind is divorced from ethical restraint the result is tyranny.

The knowledge that’s generated by AI will only ever be the cold logic of the machine. It lacks the nuanced judgment that humans have. Unless AI’s great processing power is met and matched with an equal degree of ethical restraint, the good it creates is not only lost but potentially damaging.The lesson we need to learn is this: just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.

Ethical knowledge

As citizens, our priority must be to ensure that AI works in the interests of the many rather than the few.

Currently, we’re naively assuming that the AI coders and developers have the ethical knowledge, understanding and skills to navigate the challenges that their technological innovations create.

In these circumstances, sound ethical judgment is just as important a skill as the ability to code effectively. It is a skill that must be learned, practised and deployed. Yet, very little ethical progress or development has been made in the curriculum to inform the design and development of AI.

This is a “human challenge” not a “technology challenge”. The role of people is only becoming more important in the era of AI. We must invest in teaching ethics as applied to technological innovation.

Building a platform of trust

In Australia, trust is at an all-time low because the ethical infrastructure of our society is largely damaged – from politics to sport to religious institutions to business. Trust is created when values and principles are explicitly integrated into the foundations of what is being designed and built. Whatever AI solution is developed and deployed, ethics must be at the core – consciously built into the solutions themselves, not added as an afterthought.

Creating an ethical technologically advanced culture requires proactive and intentional collaboration from those who participate in society: academia, businesses and governments. Although we’re seeing some positive early signs, such as the forums that IBM is creating to bring stakeholders from these communities together to debate and collaborate on this issue, we need much more of the same – all driven by an increased sense of urgency.

To ensure responsible stewardship is at the centre of the AI era, we need to deploy a framework that encourages creativity and supports innovation, while holding people accountable.

This story first appeared on Australian Financial Review – republished with permission.

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Australia Day: Change the date? Change the nation


Like clockwork, every January Australians question when is, or even if there is, an appropriate time to celebrate the nationhood of Australia.

Each year, a growing number of Australians acknowledge that the 26thof January is not an appropriate date for an inclusive celebration.

There are no sound reasons why the date shouldn’t be changed but there are plenty of reasons why the nation needs to change.

I’ve written about that date before, its origins and forgotten stories and recent almost-comical attempts to protect a public holiday. I choose not to repeat myself, because the date will change.

For many, the jingoism behind Australia Day is representative of a settler colonialism state that should not be preserved. A nation that is not, and has never been fair, free or young. So, I choose to put my energy into changing the nation. And I am not alone.

People are catching up and contributing their voices to the call to change the nation, but this is not a new discussion. On 26 January 1938, on the 150thanniversary of the British invasion of this continent, a group of Aboriginal people in NSW wrote a letter of protest, calling it a Day of Mourning. They asked the government to consider what that day meant to them, the First Peoples, and called for equality and justice.

Since 1938, the 26thof January continues to be commemorated as a Day of Mourning. The date is also known as Survival Day or Invasion Day to many. Whatever people choose to call that day, it is not a date suitable for rejoicing.

It was inconsiderate to have changed the date in 1994 to the 26th January. And, now the insensitivity is well known, it’s selfish not to change the date again. The only reasons I can fathom for opposition to changing the date is white privilege, or perhaps even racism.

These antiquated worldviews of white superiority will continue to haunt Australia until a critical mass has self reflected on power and privilege and whiteness, and acknowledges past and present injustices. I believe we’re almost there – which explains the frantic push back.

A belief in white righteousness quietened the voices of reason and fairness when the first fleet landed on the shores of this continent. And it enabled colonisers and settlers to participate in and/or witness without objection decades of massacres, land and resource theft, rape, cultural genocide and other acts of violence towards First Peoples.

The voice of whiteness is also found in present arguments, like when the violence of settlement is justified by what the British introduced. It is white superiority to insist science, language, religion, law and social structures of an invading force are benevolent gifts.

First Peoples already had functioning, sophisticated social structures, law, spiritual beliefs, science and technology. Combining eons of their own advances in science with long standing trade relations with Muslim neighbours, First Peoples were already on an enviable trajectory.

Tales of white benevolence, whether real or imagined, will not obliterate stories of what was stolen or lost. Social structures implanted by the new arrivals were not beneficial for First Peoples, who were barred from economic participation and denied genuine access to education, health and justice until approximately the 1970s.

Due to systemic racism, power and privilege, and social determinants, these introduced systems of justice, education and health still have entrenched access and equity barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Changing the nation involves settler colonialists being more aware of the history of invasion and brutal settlement, as well as the continuing impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It involves an active commitment to reform, which includes paying the rent.

The frontier wars did not result in victory for settler colonialists, because the fight is not over. The sovereignty of approximately 600 distinctly different cultural/language groups was never ceded. Despite generations of violence and interference from settler colonialists, First Peoples have not been defeated.

“You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation.”

Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!: A Statement of the Case for the Aborigines Progressive Associations’, The Publicist, 1938, p.3

Having lived on this continent for close to 80,000 years and surviving the violence of colonisation and ongoing injustices of non-Indigenous settlement, the voices of First Peoples cannot be dismissed. The fight for rights is not over.

The date will change. And, although it will take longer, the nation will change. There are enough still standing to lead this change – so all Australians can finally access the freedoms, equality and justice that Australia so proudly espouses.

Karen Wyld is a freelance writer and consultant of Martu descent, living on Karuna Country.

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Is it time to curb immigration in Australia?

To curb or not to curb immigration is one of the more polarising questions Australia is contemporarily grappling with, amid anxieties over an increasing population and its impact on the infrastructure of cities.

Over the past decade, Australia has seen a 2.5 million rise in our population, with a growth of almost 400,000 people in the last year. The majority of last year’s increase – about 61 percent net growth – were immigrants.

Different studies reveal vastly different attitudes.

While Australians have become progressively more concerned about a growing population, they still see the benefits of immigration, according to two different surveys.

Times are changing

In a new survey recently conducted by the Australian National University, only 30 percent of Australians – compared to 45 percent in 2010 – are in favour of population growth.

The 15 percent drop over the past decade is credited to concerns about congested and overcrowded cities, and an expensive and out-of-reach housing market.

Nearly 90 percent believed population growth should be parked because of the high price of housing, and 85 percent believed cities were far too congested and overcrowded. Pressure on the natural environment was also a concern.

But a Scanlon Foundation survey has revealed that despite alarm over population growth, the majority of Australians still appreciate the benefits of immigration.

In support of immigration

In the Mapping Social Cohesion survey from 2018, 80 percent believed “immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy”.

Similarly, 82 percent of Australians saw immigration as beneficial to “bringing new ideas and cultures”.

The Centre for Independent Studies’ own polling has shown Australians who responded supported curbing immigration, at least until “key infrastructure has caught up”.

In polling by the Lowy Institute last year, 54 percent of respondents had anti-immigration sentiments. The result reflected a 14 percent rise compared to the previous year.

Respondents believed the “total number of migrants coming to Australia each year” was too high, and there were concerns over how immigration could be affecting Australia’s national identity.

While 54 percent believed “Australia’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation”, trailing behind at 41 percent, Australians said “if [the nation is] too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation”.

Next steps?

The question that remains is what will Australia do about it?

The Coalition government under Scott Morrison recently proposed to cap immigration to 190,000 immigrants per year. Whether such a proposition is the right course of action, and will placate anxieties over population growth, remains to be seen.

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We’ll be debating IQ2: Immigration on March 26th at Sydney Town Hall, for the full line-up and ticket info click here.

Immigration Infographic - 2

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Should we stop immigration

Limiting immigration into Australia is doomed to fail

Should we stop immigration

Few topics bridge the ever widening divide between both sides of politics quite like the need to manage population growth.

Whether it’s immigration or environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility or social justice. That the global population breached 7.5 billion in 2017 has everyone concerned.

We are at the point where the sheer volume of people will start to put every system we rely on under very serious stress.

This is the key idea motivating the centrist political party Sustainable AustraliaLed by William Bourke and joined by Dick Smith, the party advocates for a non-discriminatory annual immigration cap at 70,000 persons, down from the current figure of around 200,000 – aimed at a “better, not bigger” Australia.

Join the first IQ2 debate for 2019, “Curb Immigration”. Sydney Town Hall, 26 March. Tickets here.

While the party has been accused of xenophobic bigotry for this stance, their policy makes clear they are not concerned about an immigrant’s religion, culture, or race. Their concern is exclusively for the stress greater numbers of migrants will place on Australia’s infrastructure and environment.

It is a compelling argument. After all, what is the point of the state if not to protect the interests of its citizens?

A Looming Problem

We should be concerned with the needs and interests of our international neighbours, but such concerns must surely be strictly secondary to our own. When our nearest neighbour has approximately ten times our population, squeezed into a landmass twenty five per cent Australia’s size, and ranks 113 places behind us in the Human Development Index, one can be forgiven for believing that limited immigration is critical for ongoing Australian quality of life.

This stance is further bolstered by the highly isolated, and therefore vulnerable nature of Australia’s ecosystem. Australia has the fourth highest level of animal species extinction in the world, with 106 listed as Critically Endangered and significantly more as Endangered or Under Threat.

Much of this is due to habitat loss from human encroachment as suburbs and agricultural lands expand for our increasing needs. The introduction of foreign flora and fauna can be absolutely devastating to these species, greatly facilitated by increased movement between neighbour nations (hence the virtually unparalleled ferocity of our quarantine standards).

While the nation may be a considerable exporter of foodstuffs, many argue Australia is already well over its carrying capacity. Any additional production will be degrading the land and our ability to continue growing food into the future.

The combination of ecological threats and socio-economic pressure makes the argument for limiting immigration to sustainable numbers a powerful one.

But it is absolutely doomed to failure.

Fortress Australia

If the objective of limiting immigration to Australia is both to protect our environment and maintain high quality of life, “Fortress Australia” will fail on both fronts. Why?

Because it does nothing to address the fundamental problem at hand. Unsustainable population growth in a world of limited resources.

Immigration controls may indeed protect both the Australian quality of life and its environment for a time, but without effective strategic intervention, the population burden in neighbouring countries will only continue to grow.

As conditions worsen and resources dwindle, exacerbated by the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, citizens of those overpopulated nations will seek an alternative. What could be more appealing than the enormous, low-density nation with incredibly high quality of life, right next door to them?

If a mere 10 percent of Indonesians (the vast majority of which live on the coast and are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change impacts) decided to attempt the crossing to Australia, we would be confronted by a flotilla equivalent to our entire national population.

The Dilemma

At this point we have one of two choices: suffer through the impact of over a decade’s worth of immigration in one go or commit military action against twenty-five million human beings. Such a choice is a Utilitarian nightmare, an impossible choice between terrible options, with the best possible result still involving massive and sustained suffering for all involved. While ethics can provide us with the tools to make such apocalyptic decisions, the best response by far is to prevent such choices from emerging at all.

Population growth is a real and tangible threat to the quality of life for all human beings on the planet, and like all great strategic threats, can only be solved by proactively engaging in its entirety – not just its symptoms.

Significant progress has been made thus far through programs that promote contraception and female reproductive rights. There is a strong correlation between nations with lower income inequality and population growth, indicating that economic equity can also contribute towards the stabilisation of population growth. This is illustrated by the decreasing fertility rates in most developed nations like Australia, the UK and particularly Japan.

Cause and Effect

The addressing of aggravating factors such as climate change – a problem overwhelmingly caused by developed nations such as Australia, both historically and currently through our export of brown coal– and continued good-faith collaboration with these developing nations to establish renewable energy production, will greatly assist to prevent a crisis occurring.

When concepts such as immigration limitations seek to protect our nation by addressing the symptoms, we are better served by asking how the problem can be solved from its root.

Gordon Young is an ethicist, principal of Ethilogical Consulting and lecturer in professional ethics at RMIT University’s School of Design. 

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Protect citizens first and foremost or help everyone who needs it?