What Computer Engineers should know about Socially Responsible Engineering

Note: This opinion piece was written for Engineering 7102: The Engineering Profession. It was proof-read by my other group members: Adam Sheppard, Grant O’Brien and James Power.

Professional-looking hackerSome say that the atomic bomb brought about the idea of socially-responsible science. We believe that the increasing importance of computers requires focusing our attention on socially responsible engineering. Moore’s Law dictates that computing power doubles every 18 months and was accurate for much of the 20th century. Even with Moore’s Law becoming a thing of the past [1], our increasing dependence on digital devices leaves us in a vulnerable state. Current-day engineers (and computer engineers in particular) need to heed the call of ensuring that these magnificent and marvelous machines are not used for evil. There are computers in cars, computers in shoes, computers in our pockets; all of which are owned by many people in modern society. There has never been a time when the work of computer engineers has been more closely engrained into society.

Among computer engineers, social responsibility is viewed as something that should be left to those who design bridges or cars. From our experience working in industry, many computer engineers do not seek or actively maintain a Professional Engineer’s (P. Eng) license. As they usually only deal with making software or designing low-level components, computer engineers often feel that there is no social aspect to the work they do. This, however, is becoming a less and less realistic view of the situation.
During our time as computer engineers in training, we have witnessed or worked on several projects that cannot be considered socially-responsible. These projects range from software development that could power modern military weapons to network technologies that could be used to infringe upon the public’s right to privacy. It would be foolish to think that a divide exists between society and the work of computer engineers. While most spend 40 hours a week sitting at a computer, the output of their work could be used in any part of the world within a couple of minutes. Computer engineers need the feedback from society in some form in order to be able to properly self-regulate the work that they do. What did we learn from our experiences with socially irresponsible engineering? Perhaps not enough, but we are aware of the sensitivity of the work that we do and it is something that requires regular reflection.

The greatest problem arises when these conversations or reflections stop happening. All engineers, regardless of the canvas on which they work, need to regularly take a step back and consider the implications. We are not suggesting that you grab your pitchforks and torches the moment something doesn’t feel right, but perhaps a conversation with a colleague or manager would be appropriate.

While many computer engineers would probably still have difficulty grasping their impact on society, there is even more to consider. There are those among us who have the same ability to wield computers to perform at their will, only to become parasites of society. “The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” The famous quote by T.E. Lawrence reminds us that we do not all go to work with common goals [2]. Many people are lucratively employed by creating viruses, spyware, adware, and actively hacking into the computers of everyday Canadians. One such example is the recent DNSCharger virus which affected over 7,000 Canadians [3]. Yet at the end of the day, many of these people tell their families and friends that they are computer engineers.

No doubt some engineers are asking, “Why should I care? I am not a hacker”. As an engineer, you are expected to use advanced knowledge and skills for the advancement of society. But it is not enough to merely look the other way when one of your fellow workers ignores this expectation. If we as an offshoot group of engineers have no moral gauge or common set of ethics how can we tell whether society in general views our work as being no better than hacking or cyber-terrorism?

We as ‘computer nerds’ are often asked how to avoid getting viruses or having one’s identity stolen. People wonder what the best program available is for protection. The unfortunate answer (which we don’t often share) is that the user is usually the problem. But whose fault it that? Perhaps with a better feedback system, the general public would be more aware and capable of avoiding these electronic mishaps. Have we, as computer engineers, let society down? Many of us may consider ourselves to be of a higher standard, but what good is the software or hardware we make if no one wants or knows how to use it?

One of the most beneficial aspects of proper computer programming is that it can act as a foundation for future development. While it may not look like it today, the current work of almost any computer engineer could one day be a part of a device that kills millions. I am not suggesting that computer programmers should stop sharing their code online or collaborating with others. Rather I ask that we all take some time to consider, especially if we are programming something for someone else, the consequences, including socially, ethically, and environmentally of what we are doing.

Without socially responsible engineering, we are inevitably going to find ourselves in a world where we are no longer in control. Is this the best thing for humanity? Perhaps. Is this what society wants? Absolutely not.

In conclusion, there is an appalling and frankly embarrassing absence of relations between computer engineers and society at large. Yet it has all the characteristics of a potentially great symbiotic relationship. Computer engineers need society to tell them when something they’ve made is inappropriate, or when they need help turning the darn thing on. Society needs computer engineers to be leaders and role models in developing new ways for computers and technology in general to improve everyone’s lives. In this regard, computer engineers and engineers in general need to exercise good social responsibility if only to ensure that they can continue to do what they love. Just as scientists heeded the call of social responsibility in the 1940’s, engineers need to follow suite. At its best, we will discover new and exciting ways that we can all benefit from having a little more technology in our lives.

[1] A. Knapp. (Mar. 30, 2011). “The End of Moore’s Law.” Internet: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2011/03/30/the-end-of-moores-law/, Jul. 9, 2012.
[2] T.E. Lawrence. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. Anchor, 1991.
[3] Unknown. (Jul. 6, 2012). “Last chance to remove DNSChanger virus before web outage.” Internet: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/07/06/tech-dns-changer-virus.html, Jul. 8, 2012.

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