Injecting artificial intelligence with human empathy

Injecting artificial intelligence with human empathy

Injecting artificial intelligence with human empathy

The great promise of artificial intelligence is efficiency. The finely tuned mechanics of AI will free up societies to explore new, softer skills while industries thrive on automation.

However, if we’ve learned anything from the great promise of the Internet – which was supposed to bring equality by leveling the playing field – it’s clear new technologies can be rife with complications unwittingly introduced by the humans who created them.

The rise of artificial intelligence is exciting, but the drive toward efficiency must not happen without a corresponding push for strong ethics to guide the process. Otherwise, the advancements of AI will be undercut by human fallibility and biases. This is as true for AI’s application in the pursuit of social justice as it is in basic business practices like customer service.


The ethical questions surrounding AI have long been the subject of science fiction, but today they are quickly becoming real-world concerns. Human intelligence has a direct relationship to human empathy. If this sensitivity doesn’t translate into artificial intelligence the consequences could be dire. We must examine how humans learn in order to build an ethical education process for AI.

AI is not merely programmed – it is trained like a human. If AI doesn’t learn the right lessons, ethical problems will inevitably arise. We’ve already seen examples, such as the tendency of facial recognition software to misidentify people of colour as criminals.



Biased AI

In the United States, a piece of software called Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (Compas) was used to assess the risk of defendants reoffending and had an impact on their sentencing. Compas was found to be twice as likely to misclassify non-white defendants as higher risk offenders, while white defendants were misclassified as lower risk much more often than non-white defendants. This is a training issue. If AI is predominantly trained in Caucasian faces, it will disadvantage minorities.

This example might seem far removed from us here in Australia but consider the consequences if it were in place here. What if a similar technology was being used at airports for customs checks, or part of a pre-screening process used by recruiters and employment agencies?

“Human intelligence has a direct relationship to human empathy.”

If racism and other forms of discrimination are unintentionally programmed into AI, not only will it mirror many of the failings of analog society, but it could magnify them.

While heightened instances of injustice are obviously unacceptable outcomes for AI, there are additional possibilities that don’t serve our best interests and should be avoided. The foremost example of this is in customer service.

AI vs human customer service

Every business wants the most efficient and productive processes possible but sometimes better is actually worse. Eventually, an AI solution will do a better job at making appointments, answering questions, and handling phone calls. When that time comes, AI might not always be the right solution.

Particularly with more complex matters, humans want to talk to other humans. Not only do they want their problem resolved, but they want to feel like they’ve been heard. They want empathy. This is something AI cannot do.

AI is inevitable. In fact, you’re probably already using it without being aware of it. There is no doubt that the proper application of AI will make us more efficient as a society, but the temptation to rely blindly on AI is unadvisable.

We must be aware of our biases when creating new technologies and do everything in our power to ensure they aren’t baked into algorithms. As more functions are handed over to AI, we must also remember that sometimes there’s no substitute for human-to-human interaction.

After all, we’re only human.

Allan Waddell is founder and Co-CEO of Kablamo, an Australian cloud based tech software company.

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Are we so innately flawed we’re incapable of teaching others to be good?


Why the future is workless

Predictions for the future of work can make grim reading – depending on your point of view. Many of our jobs are being automated out of existence, however, it looks like we will have a lot more free time.

Writer and Doctor of Philosophy, Tim Dunlop, says people and governments are going to have to rethink how we support ourselves when there isn’t enough paid work to go around.

Dunlop does not ascribe to the view often put forward by economists that technology will generate enough jobs to replace the ones that are destroyed by robotics and artificial intelligence.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily true in the medium term… I think there’s going to be a really nasty transition for more than a generation,” says Dunlop, the author of Why the Future is Workless and The Future of Everything.

“We are going through this huge period of transition at the moment and we don’t really know where it’s heading. We’re at the bottom of the curve, in terms of what [new technologies] are going to be capable of.”

Dunlop says framing question around the future of work as “will a robot take my job?”, is reductive. Instead, we should be looking at what sort of job will be available and what the conditions will be for the jobs that are offered.

“If we are working less hours, or there is less work, or the economy just needs fewer people, and then we don’t have a technology problem, we’ve got a distribution problem,” he says.

The “hollowing out” of the job market means that middle-skilled jobs are disappearing because they can be automated. Trying to “upskill” people who have been displaced, or redirect them into jobs that need a human touch (such as caring jobs) is not an answer for everyone.

“Not everybody can have a high-skill, high-paid sort of job. You need those middle-level jobs as well. And if you don’t have those, then society’s got a problem.” he says.

Dunlop says one way of addressing the issue is a universal basic income: where everybody gets a standard payment to cover their basic needs.

“I don’t think you can rely on wages to distribute wealth in an equitable way, in the way that might have been in the recent past,” he says.

The idea of a Universal Basic Income has been around since the 16th Century and is unconditional – not based on household income.

In Australia, the single-person pension (now just over $24,000 per annum) might be seen as an appropriate level of payment, according to Dunlop, in an article written for the Inside Story  website.

“It is basic also in the sense that it provides an income floor below which no one can fall. The payment is unconditional in that no one has to fulfil any obligations in order to receive it, and even if you earn other income you’re still eligible. That makes it universal, equally available to the poorest member of society as it is to the start-up billionaire,” he writes.

Much of the discomfort often voiced about such a scheme centres around the idea that people are being paid to “do nothing” and that it removes the incentive to work.

However, trials show that in developing countries, people use the money to improve their situation, starting businesses, sending children to school and avoiding prostitution. In Europe and Canada, people receiving the payment tend to stay in their jobs and entrepreneurship increases.

Trials of the Universal Basic Income are now taking place globally – from Switzerland to Canada to Kenya – but most are limited to the unemployed or financially needy, rather than being universal.

Dunlop says that, rather than worrying about whether people “deserve” the payment, we should accept the concept of “shared citizenship”. Whether we do paid work, or not, we are all contributing to the overall wealth of society.

Inequality comes when wealth gets divided up by those who do work that is paid and those who own the means of production. With a Universal Basic Income, everybody’s contribution is valued and people get a benefit from the roles they play in the formal and informal economy, he says.

So what will we be doing in the future if we are not doing paid work? Dunlop says we will still have our hobbies, passions and families – and we can derive just as much (if not more) meaning from those things as we do from our jobs.

We are already seeing evidence of efforts to reduce the hours of work, with companies trying four-day work weeks (paid for five), the Swedish Government trialling a six-hour workday, a French law banning work emails after hours.

Dunlop says a “work ethic” culture makes it hard for these reforms to succeed and unions tend to see a push for reduced hours as a “trojan horse” threat of increasing casualisation and insecure work.

“That’s where things like the French rule about emails probably comes in handy. It sets some parameters around what society sees as acceptable and maybe it needs some government leadership in this area.”

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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What will we be doing in the future if we are not doing paid work?

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.”


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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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?

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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Should we change the date of Australia Day?