Exclusive: Hannah Fry says ethical pledge needed in tech fields that will shape future
Mathematicians, computer engineers and scientists in related fields should take a Hippocratic oath to protect the public from powerful new technologies under development in laboratories and tech firms, a leading researcher has said.
The ethical pledge would commit scientists to think deeply about the possible applications of their work and compel them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society.
Hannah Fry, an associate professor in the mathematics of cities at University College London, said an equivalent of the doctor’s oath was crucial given that mathematicians and computer engineers were building the tech thatwould shape society’s future.
Despite being invisible, maths has a dramatic impact on our lives
“We need a Hippocratic oath in the same way it exists for medicine,” Fry said. “In medicine, 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 will explore the power and perils of modern mathematics in December when she delivers the 2019 Royal Institution Christmas lectures. Made popular by figures from Michael Faraday to Carl Sagan, the demonstration-filled sessions were launched in 1825 and became the most prestigious public science lectures in Britain.
In the three-lecture series, Secrets and Lies: the Hidden Power of Mathematics, Fry will examine the maths of risk and luck, from finding the perfect partner to keeping healthy and happy. She will also explore how algorithms that feast on data have infiltrated every aspect of our lives; what problems maths should be kept away from; and how we must learn when the numbers cannot be trusted.
Fry said she got a sense of the ethical blindspots scientists can have while describing to an academic conference in Berlin the computer modelling of the 2011 riots she had done for the Metropolitan police. The audience, which understood the realities of a police state, heckled her from their seats.
When Fry returned to London, she realised how mathematicians, computer engineers and physicists are so used to working on abstract problems that they rarely stop to consider the ethics of how their work might be used.
The issue has become urgent now that researchers are building systems that gather and sell personal data, exploit human frailties, and take on life-or-death decisions. “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,” Fry said.
“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.”
The case for a Hippocratic oath for scientists has been made before, including by the philosopher Karl Popper, who wrote in 1969: “One of the few things we can do is to try to keep alive, in all scientists, the consciousness of their responsibility.” Thirty years later, Sir Joseph Rotblat, who quit the allied nuclear bomb project for moral reasons, endorsed a pledge written by the US student Pugwash group.
On algorithms, Fry said she was not against them but wanted to drive home their limitations. She cited the case of the classic textbook The Making of a Fly, by the British biologist Peter Lawrence. At one point, Amazon was offering the book for $23m thanks to a war between sellers’ algorithms which had got out of control. In other circumstances, such a clash might not be so amusing.
The mathematician, who has deleted her Facebook account and uses false names and email addresses online, said she also believed the public must take some responsibility for the products tech firms served up.
“We’re getting the technology we’re asking for. And as part of that it’s really important that we have a national conversation about what it is we actually want. Because it’s very easy to make these decisions without full visibility of everything you are agreeing to.”
The genetics testing firm 23andMe was a case in point, she said.
“We literally hand over our most private data, our DNA, but we’re not just consenting for ourselves, we are consenting for our children, and our children’s children. Maybe we don’t live in a world where people are genetically discriminated against now, but who’s to say in 100 years that we won’t? And we are are paying to add our DNA to that dataset.”
The answer, she said, was to arm people with knowledge. “The future doesn’t just happen. We are building it, and we are building it all the time. The national conversation, what people are saying in the media, what people are talking about on Twitter and on Instagram, I do believe that makes a difference.”
The lectures, to be broadcast on BBC Four, will be only the fourth in nearly 200 years to focus on mathematics.
“One of the problems maths struggles with is that it’s invisible,” Fry said. We haven’t got explosions on our side. But despite being invisible, mathematics has a dramatic impact on our lives, and at this point in history that’s more pertinent than it’s ever been.”
Tickets for the live filming of the 2019 Christmas lectures will be available to RIGB members, patrons and UK registered schools via a ballot opening on 5 September.