ICT4D and Ethics

I work for a social enterprise that uses Information and Communication Technology (ICT, read: cell phones and technology) to serve the needs of the global poor. My company is not alone in this growing sector, as the fourth industrial revolution rises. The World Economic Forum explains the fourth industrial revolution as:

[T]he digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres….The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

The reality is, the world is shifting towards computerization in a way that we have never seen before. Right now “machine learning” is gaining momentum. Computers, cell phones, and technology are rapidly gathering data on us as users and are taking thousands of data points to predict and influence behaviour. It helps me to think of machine learning as, the half step between our current world and the world of artificial intelligence where computers have extreme intelligence beyond human understanding.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the overlap of these technology breakthroughs and solutions for the world’s poor/vulnerable populations. There are innovative, helpful, apps being developed and implemented to serve the world over. Apps that do prenatal follow up and allow doctors to do better health tracking of mother and baby. Apps that connect farmers with more markets to sell goods based on the farmer’s field location, number of social contacts, and social capital. Apps that predict user behaviour for loan repayment to evaluate risk and do financial literacy education. But in these situations does the line between helpful and harmful blur? Often these applications are serving some of the world’s most under-connected and lowest education populations who live below the global poverty line (under 2$ per capita income per day). Can we adequately explain to someone who has never googled anything what information an application is collecting about their personal lives from their cell phones and how that data will be used to serve them as well as inform better machine learning? When do we over simplify these complex issues for people who might feel desperate to earn more money, gain access to more services, or gain additional familial support?

I am not saying that ICT in international development is inherently evil. I am also not saying that the unique companies and NGOs using technology to serve the world’s poor are deliberately trying to oversimplify or trick their beneficiaries. I am trying to point out though, that the global technology wave is happening very fast; and I have concerns about the ethics of this technology wave on the world’s vulnerable populations. I don’t have a solution to this dilemma other than to raise the questions and try to get more people talking about the rights of technology users to opt out of sharing their personal information. This option should not mean that they can not benefit from innovative solutions that will help decrease poverty.

Food for thought.

If you want more information on the Fourth Industrial Revolution read this article: Fourth Industrial Revolution and How to Respond