The technical progress illustrated by the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data technologies, the Internet of Things (IoT), online platforms, NBICs, autonomous expert systems, and the Blockchain let appear the possibility of a new world and the emergence of a fourth industrial revolution centered around digital data. Therefore, the advent of digital and its omnipresence in our modern society create a growing need to lay ethical benchmarks against this new religion of data, the "dataisme".
Beranger Jerome CSO of ADEL, Paul Sabatier INSERM University.
Ethics at the Service of Digital Technology
Confronted with this digitalization of society and the change in paradigm it generates, it is natural to wonder how mankind can be expected to evolve. Even if it is obviously complicated to project in the future, which is by definition uncertain (and especially since we are faced with an unprecedented period of human history), ethics can (and must) provide us with some lines of thought that will allow us to have a vision of the main orientations available to us along the path of our evolution [DOS 18].
Ethics applied to digital technology is a topic spontaneously referring to numerous questions and themes, such as big data and personal data protection, transparency for consumers, infobesity, blurring of boundaries between private life and professional life, (generational, social, geographic) digital divide, traceability, dehumanization and technological dependence, predictive algorithms and free will, "Uberization" of society, and so on. These many topics reflect the magnitude of the ethical issues associated with digital technology.
In terms of ethics as we understand it today, our ethos (or "accustomed place" in Greek) is no other than mankind itself, and the whole issue is actually to know how to act in order to act humanely, act appropriately from a moral point of view. With the digitalization of the world, human exchanges have an essential ethical dimension because they are always conducted within the framework of a relationship with others, whose complexity is unsolvable. Ethics is not at the service of anything but human good, which admittedly includes a certain economic efficiency. What is essential here is that ethical concern can only be efficient in all areas if it is driven by the desire to contribute to the well-being of the person, the good of all people. If efficiency is the production of beneficial effects, nothing is more efficient than what helps the common good. Ethics can be understood from two different angles, on the one hand, that based on the search for happiness and, on the other hand, that based on the search for good, within the framework of a reflection on what human relationships with each other should be. Ethics is then the very practice of thinking and the reflective movement through which a moral subject is structured as a subject within its relationship with the other and its relationship with mankind.
It can often be seen that ethics and epi-ethics1 constitute a topic which is expressed a posteriori, once an untoward or negative event has occurred. Yet, with global digitalization, it is going to become almost impossible to be reactive to address ethical problems, which will keep multiplying, extending and generalizing throughout the world. Thus, to meet these ethical objectives, it is essential to anticipate the uses of tools, as soon as they are designed, and to provide for sufficiently flexible architectures to act retroactively on uses and development. We must also investigate the limits of the new tools and new digital services. Under these conditions, it seems necessary to deal with all this upstream of the NICT design. This ethics by design will thus help to positively regulate technological innovation and be proactive.
1.1. Towards a new paradigm of the digital society
As previously seen, the history of mankind is constantly punctuated by evolutionary changes, which have direct effects on our societies. The macroscopic approach of the planet appears in a cyclic form, as with humans who are confronted with several stages and ages (childhood, puberty, adolescence, adulthood, old age, etc.) during their lives.
Over the past two decades, we have lived in a world where data has kept multiplying, where visions and analyses are going to become endless, and where everything will become a sum of singularities and values, which structures will try to understand in order to extract them. These significant volumes of unpublished data contribute to create new knowledge, new perceptions and, therefore, new opportunities. We are now in an age of convergence between data that can all become homogeneous, digitizable and integrable, and more correlation of meanings. It is the emergence of global digitalization, in which databases, storage tools and large-scale data use have been completely redesigned and improved, greatly supporting their operational performances. This is reflected by new data driven approaches, where we visualize more than we model, and where quantity is more important than quality. This "datafication" has the effect of providing the conditions and means for governments and companies to map society in a quantifiable and analyzable manner in order to explore everyday life reality, and even the thoughts of individuals [EAG 06, ZUB 15].
Thus, technologies associated with big data, although already well developed in science [HEL 12], resulted in radical changes in paradigms in all areas of activity. The transition from a research based on hypotheses to a research based on data has had, consequently, significant implications for the actors, by modifying the quality of their connections and the scope of their rights and obligations. We have now transitioned from an explicative science seeking causes to a statistical and mathematical science, whose purpose is to predict paths or trends, and to provide a representation of a possible future. The progress in algorithmic knowledge makes it possible to more quickly question and structure databases. We can consider the example of the health sector where we are gradually moving from a chemical and post-traumatic medicine to a preventive and customized medicine. Thus, these NICTs can accurately monitor the behavior and habits at an unprecedented high level [MAR 14].
Therefore, data no longer represent the product or by-product of knowledge, but its source. The latter are no longer placed into categories of reason, but are rather going to be able to be processed one by one, in a singular and differential manner. Digital data are now recognized as one of the cornerstones of innovation, likely to develop new organizational, strategic and economic models, as well as significant progress in terms of productivity. Only structures and actors who will know how to integrate NICTs, such as data mining or deep learning, into their internal activity will really be able to capture the value of the multiform data at their disposal.
Traditional hypothetical-deductive approaches, which generally rely on a small quantity of data collected within a very controlled framework, increasingly give way to empirical-inductive models, based on the search for correlations from a large set of data. This digital revolution is both a change in our ecosystem and the development of new realities, in which digital technology (based on silicon, online) extends and increasingly overlaps analog technology (based on carbon, offline) until the medium term, absorbing and merging with it [BÉR 16]. This necessarily results in a change in space-time landmarks, where digital technology generates actions almost in real time and applied to any location on the planet. In fact, this ubiquity and immediacy significantly and irreversibly impact our actions and words.
Under these conditions, we are witnessing the beginning of a new divide, or even a paradigm modification, due to the arrival of a sufficiently relevant model able to replace reality and open up a large field of discoveries. This new model will gradually take over the previous achievements and knowledge within a broader perspective. These big data provide a range of new possibilities in terms of flexibility, visualization, exploration and interpretation. This revolution not only changes our understanding of the external world, but also our understanding of what we are as human beings. NICTs can be reduced to the product of the multiplication of technologies' mutations, along with the mutations of mentalities and uses. Thus, all these phenomena mutually increase their effects.
Any NICT describes and structures a relationship between humans and their environment, both human and physical. We see a technological dynamic which follows its own trajectory and has an impact on our society [BAD 15]. Indeed, technology has a hypnotizing power over society: "Any new technology reduces the interaction of senses and consciousness, more specifically in the new field of innovations, in which there is a kind of identification of the subjects and the object" [MCL 77]. Consequently, the digital revolution challenges the philosophical foundations of traditional ethical thinking.
Furthermore, this technical, generic and socio-cultural transformation space can be associated with a "digital divide"2 between individuals, due to:
- - the understanding of complexity, namely when, why and how processed big data were hierarchized and placed into a specific category? This is essential in order to reinforce the self-control of the latter [LYO 03];
- - the incapacity to access the methodology and know-how used, the often opaque and hidden functioning of the algorithm, the decision criteria applied [TEN 13];
- - the difficulty for actors to be able to transform and adjust digital data [BOY 12];
- - the ability or inability of the individuals concerned to be informed about the traceability of the data throughout its life cycle [COL 14];
- - the complexity of access to NICTs (access to a suitable computer, network connection, reasonable costs, etc.), as well as contents (namely the capacity to...