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Article: Ethics – What Next?

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • The recently launched “Sustainable Servers” petition and whitepaper encourages tech to demonstrate basic care for human welfare by running every server off renewable power by 2024 – an achievable goal with simple steps to get there.
  • We all need to feel personally responsible for the ethics of our infrastructure and products: the security, the fairness and the compassion.
  • “Duty of care” is a well established legal principle. It is an obligation to take reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others.
  • Tech ethics has always been the right thing to do but if care has just become legally required we’ll see an increased focus on standards of testing and on failure or near-miss alerting, and resolution.

This year at QCon London and the Coed:Ethics Conference we started to talk about what it means to be an ethical technologist. All our talks from QCon and Coed:Ethics are available here on InfoQ.

The running theme of both conferences was taking care. Who should do that? Everyone. From shareholders to individual developers to implementers and users we need to feel personally responsible for the ethics of our products: the security, the impact and the compassion. In fact, in Britain we recently took a step towards being legally required to do so. In June, the UK government stated that machine learning algorithms fall under the UK’s rigorous Health and Safety at Work legislation.  

Section 6 of the Health and safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places duties on any person who designs, manufacturers, imports or supplies any article for use at work to ensure that it will be safe and without risks to health, which applies to artificial intelligence and machine learning software  – June 2018, Buscome, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

This was a significant statement. Most of us don’t build robots likely to break anyone’s arm, but “health” is broader than just not falling off ladders (which, incidentally, has massively reduced as a cause of death since Health and Safety legislation was introduced – it works).

Apart from the obvious physical examples of autonomous vehicles or medical applications, any algorithm that makes significant life decisions about someone could potentially affect their health and wellbeing.

Duty To Care?

There is an internationally recognised concept called “duty of care” for creators of products that interact with people.

“a duty of care is a legal obligation which is imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others” –  Wikipedia,

“Duty of care” is a good definition of what ethical (i.e. safe) product development is about.

I’d say that tech ethics is being careful on behalf of all your users, forever and wherever.  You want to avoid scenarios where the Daily Mail could replace your term, “end user” with their term, “helpless victim”.

As the UK gov points out, as an industry we’re still at the stage of defining safety standards for ourselves:  

It is for the designer, manufacturer, importer or supplier to develop tests that are sufficient to demonstrate that their product is safe. – June 2018, Buscome, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

Tech ethics has always been the right thing to do but it has now also started to become legally required, which will probably generate more action. I suspect we’ll see an increased focus on standards of testing and on failure or near-miss alerting, and resolution.

There are already some resources to get things kicked off. July’s new ACM Code of Ethics is a useful detailed definition and this summer’s EthicalOS toolkit is a good way to get your teams thinking imaginatively on the subject. We’re also collecting useful resources and links at It is certainly worth reading up on other industries like aviation, construction and manufacturing that have had legally enforced care responsibilities for longer.

But is that all there is? Is this just a matter of tightening up some rather dull internal processes and standards? Couldn’t we also have some inspiring and ethical industry-wide goals?

Inspiring Ethical Goals For Technology

The UN’s sustainable development goals have been part of a process that has successfully raised millions out of poverty. With aims like like “zero hunger” they define what the human race currently agrees is good. Unfortunately, much of the tech industry is currently working directly against one of these incontrovertibly ethical targets: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

According to the UN this goal is not going well:

Progress in every area of sustainable energy falls short of what is needed to achieve energy access for all and to meet targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Meaningful improvements will require higher levels of financing and bolder policy commitments

Tech is a huge user of electricity but most of the industry doesn’t have a strategy for making that energy sustainable or even reliable. Data centres require ~2% of the world’s electricity and growing. All of tech (including devices) uses around 12%. According to The Economist, Bitcoin mining in particular takes an “eye-watering amount of power”. In one recently reported example, the subsidized power requirements from new AWS DCs in multiple US states may have significantly increased the cost of electricity to poorer citizens.

How can we stop hurting and start genuinely helping? Surprisingly easily. All we need to do is pay attention.

Let’s Help

The recently launched “Sustainable Servers” pledge aims to persuade all of tech to move every server over to renewable power by 2024. It’s an achievable goal and they have produced a whitepaper outlining the steps.

According to their team (which includes me) you can meet the goal in several ways:

  • Buy renewable power for your own servers (this is what Google do, they are now the world’s biggest corporate purchaser of renewable energy).
  • Use cloud instances that are already fully renewable (e.g. the whole Google Cloud, all Azure or four specific AWS regions: Ireland, Frankfurt, Canada or Oregon).
  • Ask your data centre or Cloud provider to provide 100% Sustainable Servers.
  • As an individual, sign the Sustainable Servers Pledge and we will put pressure on Cloud providers to move faster and provide more information about their renewable plans.

A recent report suggests sustainable power should be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. Moving to them makes strategic sense for a highly electricity-dependent industry like ours. Facebook have already publicly committed to 100% renewable data centres by 2020 and Apple are already 100% renewably powered. Ask yourself why Google, Apple and Facebook are doing it? I suspect it’s not only from the goodness of their hearts.

You could also reduce your energy use using more efficient devops techniques like Kubernetes plus containers, but that’s more work for developers, so let’s be honest, we are less likely to do it.

What’s Everyone Else Doing?

It is difficult to guess at the exact amount of renewable energy that is used to power the cloud as most of the cloud providers don’t want to provide hard data. However the Sustainable Servers team estimates that less than 50% of current cloud energy usage is being offset by renewable sources.

The Cloud My Destination

Research from Cisco suggests that 95% of data centre traffic will be cloud traffic by 2021. Even if that’s wildly optimistic, “most” Data Centre traffic could be on the Cloud within 5 years. Adding to that, reported research from Huawei estimates that data (IoT, Machine Learning, AI etc) traffic might increase 5-fold by 2025.

If those estimates pan out then without significant investment in efficiency, energy use by Cloud providers becomes a serious threat both to the climate and to energy security elsewhere within society.

We will need massive investment in electricity provision to cope. The power required to deal with an expansion of Data Centres on that scale means energy security will be an issue for everyone inside and outside tech. If carbon emissions are already at perhaps 2% from Data Centres, and if their traffic increases 5-fold then, even with the best Data Centre efficiency improvements, there is likely to be at least 3 or 4 times greater volume of climate changing emissions from DCs. We need to act.

In the tech industry we’re inventive, have broad shoulders and we tend to believe in climate science. If we can’t work to curb our own emissions then who will? If we succeed in moving our industry to renewables by funding investment in new sustainable power sources, we could potentially offset the entire aviation industry and more. That’s an industry goal for the benefit of all humankind and something we could be proud of. Please sign our petition, consider where you site your cloud instances, and help make it happen.

About the Author

Anne Currie has been in the tech industry for over 20 years working on everything from Microsoft Back Office Servers in the 90’s to international online lingerie in the 00’s to cutting edge devops and the impact of orchestrated containers in the 10’s. Anne has co-founded tech startups in the productivity, retail and devops spaces. She currently works in London for Container Solutions.

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