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The ethics of big data and the infosphere
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PROFESSOR LLuciano Floridiuciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the Oxford Internet Institute has been looking at the philosophical and ethical questions that have arisen out of the proliferation of data over the last 20 years. His pioneering work has seen him act as an advisor to the likes of the EU and Google.  

He says that ethical considerations must be looked at when considering the impact of data on society.

“Philosophy tries to identify open problems where intelligent, well-informed, open-minded discussions can be had and where there is no solution in terms of maths or science,” says Professor Floridi. “Think of deciding whether to have a party next Saturday. All the maths and science in the world will not give you the answer ‘yes we should’ or ‘no we shouldn’t’. The maths and the science is still needed because we need to know how many people are coming and who is paying for the beer, but philosophy comes in when all the data has been applied and we want to have that open discussion.”  

The way in which data and information have become an everyday part of people’s lives in recent years, means there is a clear need for the “open problems” that have grown alongside to be looked at. Professor Floridi says: “Quite obviously, our world has been transformed radically and deeply and continues to be transformed radically and deeply by the digital revolution. 

“So we have new, open problems of the kind philosophy is interested in, or we have new versions of old open problems that philosophy is interested in.” For example, the digital revolution has opened up borders in completely new ways, allowing businesses and individuals to reach across the world without leaving their home territory. 

“If we consider law, we have been thinking for centuries now ‘My place, my rule. Your place, your rule’, but that doesn’t apply anymore.” But the importance of data and information has also raised the prospect of looking at existing problems differently, with issues around identity now bound up with people’s online experiences. 

A newly-created digital space

Professor Floridi says this online experience is about more than simply communicating with others. In fact, he sees us moving into a newly-created digital space, which he calls the infosphere, built by new technology.

“Think of a BT telephone line compared to being online for hours checking this and that,” he says. “The Facebook experience is typical, but Google and looking at web pages are the same sort of experience. That environment has been built by the technologies we started developing decades ago. Now we are realising that the internet and social media are not utilities but they are a new space that we ­occupy.

“We are moving from living in the biosphere to living in the infosphere. That shift has ­immense consequences.” Perhaps the next stage in the development of the infosphere will not be human led, but will come from artificial intelligence (AI), where the true “digital natives are algorithms”, which according to Professor Floridi “swim in the sea of data like fish”.

This eventuality requires little by way of new thinking. Algorithms that were created decades ago still power the digital spaces of today. AI and machine learning are making use of the vast amount of data and the huge computational power that is now available.

AI: keep humans in the loop

AI is another area where it is wise to think of the ethical and philosophical questions early, according to Professor Floridi. He dismisses fears over Terminator-style ­robots taking over the world or the so-called singularity, where artificial intelligence becomes so ­advanced that technology outstrips ­human intelligence. However, he says there is a need to think critically about what effect technology will have on the wider world. He cites a case where engineers from South Korean arms firm DoDAAM created a ­robot ­sentry to patrol the border between the North and South. They initially delivered a totally ­autonomous machine that could identify – and kill – anyone who crossed into the DMZ without permission. However, South ­Korean military officials insisted that a ­human be ­involved, requiring a password to be used before the robots could open fire.

“What I am worried about is machines ­being put in power by doing an incredible amount of work instead of us and for us, without us being in the loop. That is scary.  We avoid it by not being silly, by not delegating tasks that shouldn’t be delegated.”

It is this type of scenario where ethics and philosophical considerations become ­increasingly valuable. They enable us to consider wider implications and look at ways in which we can identify potential problems – and solutions. The fact that people are now more aware of issues makes it easier to have a debate about how we should be shaping our digital future.

What’s the problem?

Professor Floridi says that while most people are not consciously thinking about the ­ethics of data and information, they are aware that there is an impact. He points to media coverage of surveillance, privacy and security ­issues as raising the profile, but adds people’s behaviour is the biggest influence.

“The average person doesn’t spend any ­moment thinking about philosophy or ­ethics of digital. Neither are they oblivious and saying everything is fine – they know it isn’t. I think society is at a stage where people know there is a bit of a problem, but they don’t know exactly what it is and they are searching for answers,” says Professor Floridi. “We now do banking online, which 20 years ago would have been inconceivable. Forget about cash, now you don’t even need a pin, you just wave your card in front of a machine. The digital becomes such an everyday, pervasive experience, but older people who have not grown up with it ask questions because they see how things are changing. The young ones are asking ­questions because they are already there and understand, but want to know better.”

Libraries as portal to the infosphere

Everyone who is connected is releasing data in a way that is totally uncontrollable. It is like the ‘oxygen we breathe’ in that once it has been exhaled there is no realistic chance that we can say what happens to it. We no longer have ownership and so Professor Floridi believes we will have to rely on legislation and guidelines to ensure those using the data do so ethically.

If we accept the view that many people are now living between the biosphere and the infosphere, then what role is there for library and information professionals? According to Professor Floridi, there needs to be a radical rethink of what these roles should be. Merely extending traditional services to include a digital remit does not go far enough.

Instead, Professor Floridi sees libraries and librarians as being portals into the infosphere, there to help people navigate and understand how they fit into that space. He also points to the digital divide and says there needs to be more work done to bridge that gap. Those differences between digital haves and have-nots will be amplified as the infosphere gains more traction, shaping societies around the world – bringing ­connected people, wherever they live, closer together. At the same time, it could increase the separation ­between neighbours depending on whether they are connected or not.

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