As the future becomes ever more uncertain and innovation continues to spawn unintended consequences, it is vital for leaders in the technology field to adopt a Hippocratic oath: that’s the message from mathematician Hannah Fry.


In a Guardian preview of her forthcoming series of Royal Institution Christmas lectures, Fry argues that an equivalent of the medical profession’s guiding maxim – traditionally framed as “First, do no harm” – is just as essential for the mathematics and computer-engineering arenas that are doing so much to shape the future. [1]


“In medicine,” she says, “you learn about ethics from day one. In mathematics, it’s a bolt-on at best. It has to be there from day one and at the forefront of your mind in every step you take.” Fry notes: “We’ve got all these tech companies filled with very young, very inexperienced, often white boys who have lived in maths departments and computer science departments. They have never been asked to think about ethics, they have never been asked to consider how other people’s perspectives of life might be different to theirs, and ultimately these are the people who are designing the future for all of us.”


Fry’s awakening to this necessity, she explains, came from a startling experience she had at an academic conference in Berlin. In a speech she made at the event, Fry outlined a computer model she had made of the 2011 UK riots, on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. As she talked the audience through her model, Fry was heckled by attendees who pointed out that her work lent itself to the sort of surveillance favoured by police states.


Just a few days before Fry’s call emerged, a similar plea surfaced from design thinker Casper Koomen at engineering journal the EE Times. In an article headlined ‘Time to Take “Hippocratic Oath” for Engineering’, Koomen discusses the development of smart cities, noting: “People, nature and society need to be at the centre of the decision-making process, yet are often forced to take a back seat when engineering decisions are made only from technical, business, economic or governance perspectives.”


He adds: “Yes, it is time to take a Hippocratic oath for Engineering. Perhaps this could be as simple as ‘I promise to do no evil’, but I think it should entail a little more than that (and who is to say your ‘no evil’ is everyone’s?). ‘Go fast and break things’ certainly is not the right way to approach it (it feels, I don't know, adolescent?). Perhaps it is time to turn to other philosophies and cultures for inspiration. The African word ‘ubuntu’, which loosely translates as ‘I am, because we are’ could be an inspiration.” [2]


So, do the positions advanced by Fry and Koomen demonstrate that, to face the leadership challenges of an increasingly uncertain world, every profession should adopt a Hippocratic-type guiding principle – one that will ensure that decisions always arise from a sound, ethical footing?


The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I find it interesting that the clamour for ethical business is coming from all quarters. With her focus on ethical leadership amid a period of rapid technological development, Fry highlights just one, prime example of how the underlying principles of being morally robust should underpin every decision that is made. And that if one doesn’t have that ethical underpinning – if one doesn’t think hard about consequences – then decisions could readily send organisations adrift.”


Cooper notes: “Fry’s challenge is a compelling one. She urges us to consider that, typically, there are so few people involved in creating software that is so influential in people’s lives. Surely, the first step for those developers should be to think about the ethics of what they’re doing. But also, in a way, this links to our blog from earlier this week: we’re so preoccupied with vocational education and taking degrees that lead to jobs that we’re losing sight of the purpose of knowledge, and why we find out the things we do. Knowledge empowers us to more effectively evaluate our decisions through an ethical lens.”


Cooper adds: “With all that in mind, yes – I would support a Hippocratic oath for all leaders. We should all seek to do no harm. Sometimes, in the short term, that would appear to have an economic cost attached to it. But that would surely be outweighed by the cost of failing to address the relevant ethical dimensions of the matter at hand.”


For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on ethics and integrity


Source refs: [1] [2]


Image of Hippocrates statue at Larissa, Greece, courtesy of Georgios Alexandris, via Shutterstock


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