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Communications of the ACM


'Have You Thought About . . .': Talking About Ethical Implications of Research

open hand and question marks

Credit: Sbastien Decoret

How do researchers talk to one another about the ethics of our research? How do you tell someone you are concerned their work may do more harm than good for the world? If someone tells you your work may cause harm, how do you receive that feedback with an open mind, and really listen? I find myself lately on both sides of this dilemma—needing both to speak to others and listen myself more. It is not easy on either side. How can we make those conversations more productive?

We are at an unprecedented moment of societal change brought on by new technologies. We create things with both good and bad possible uses, and with implications we may or may not be able to meaningfully foresee. Technologies have both intended and unintended consequences.5 To complicate things, we inevitably lose control of the technologies we create. The ethical responsibility of us as creators is difficult to understand. But one thing we can and should do is to talk about those implications—relentlessly. Even when the conversations are difficult.


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