Microsoft and technologists’ ethical dilemma
Some Microsoft employees have demanded that the company cancel its $480 million deal with Pentagon to supply its augmented reality headsets. The tech giant had won the contract to deliver 100,000 of its HoloLens devices last November. In an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella, they said, “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”
Such employee activism is a growing trend. Microsoft is hardly the first company to face this kind of pressure from its employees, and in fact, this is not even the first time for Microsoft. Last year, its employees demanded that it stop its work with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, because it was separating immigrant children from their parents. Google employees have protested against the company’s Chinese search engine project called Dragonfly, and its work with Pentagon’s artificial intelligence drone system called Project Maven. There was an outcry in Salesforce over its work with US Customs and Border Protection agency. Some believe this is Silicon Valley’s own labour movement.
The debate around this is far from over. Some argue that technologies have always moved between the different sectors. The internet, for example, came to society from the military. And instead of trying to stop such movement, as a society we have to focus on checks and balances so it is not put to wrong use. As Christopher Kirchhoff, a visiting technologist at the Harvard Institute of Politics, argued last year, “The best way to influence how the United States fights wars is not through company policy; it is by the ballot box.” Not surprisingly, that is Nadella’s argument too. “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” he said in an interview to CNBC.
Some others argue that outsourcing such crucial issues to the ballot box is no answer. Everyone has a role to play. Leaders have to be clear about the purpose of their organisation (is it only to make more money for owners?) and ensure that the company’s actions align with that. The protests by employees at tech companies are essentially a call for that alignment. As Arun Maira argues in his recent essay, “Leaders of change will be those who will take the first steps towards shaping a better world for everyone, regardless of whether others are following them or not. They will look inwards to rediscover the purpose of their existence.”
Two unintended consequences of lab-grown meat
Cultured meat has seen huge progress in the last few years. Some years ago cultured meat was seen as too expensive and too terrible in taste. Since then, several labs and startups have been working on the problem. Environmentalists see it as solution to problems associated with animal farms and factories, primarily around methane emissions. Some vegetarians drool at the prospect of eating meat without having to kill animals. And, it might soon be available in restaurants.
However, in some cases lab-grown meat could end up doing more lasting damage to the climate compared to beef. Scientists, who studied the impact of cultured meat and beef, say it depends on how the energy is produced. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane warms the planet more, but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2. Methane stays for about 12 years, and CO2, for a millennia.
Lab-grown meat could potentially increase inequality. In a Twitter thread, Paul Graham, co-founder of startup incubator YCombinator, explained how.
People have little loyalty to meat per se. If you made something that was cheaper and tasted better, most carnivores would switch. Once that shift started, social pressure against eating meat would grow rapidly. It would seem, and in fact would be, perverse.— Paul Graham (@paulg) February 24, 2019
Predictions about the future often turn out to be false, but I'm going to risk predicting a rapid switch away from meat at some point. It's rocket-science hard, but no harder, and there is a huge amount of money to be made. Ergo it will happen.— Paul Graham (@paulg) February 24, 2019
I'll warn you in advance, though, that the switch will probably increase rather than decrease economic inequality. The replacements for meat will be created by startups, which means more Bezoses, and will simultaneously put lots of small farmers out of business.— Paul Graham (@paulg) February 24, 2019
Some more unintended consequences
Editors of The CRISPR Journal recently retracted a paper on the ethics of gene editing. The irony: it was written by He Jiankui, the scientist who is right in the middle of a gene editing controversy. This is a summary of the ethical principles he and his co-authors proposed, by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News:
- mercy for families in need,
- only for serious disease never vanity,
- respect a child’s autonomy,
- genes do not define you, and
- everyone deserves freedom from genetic disease.
The problem with gene editing is that we are still in a grey zone. According to a group of scientists from the US and Israel, the brains of two Chinese girls whose genes He edited last year may have been changed. The deletion of CCR5 from human embryos, which prevents HIV from entering blood cells, also enhances the brain’s cognition and memory. Isn’t it a good thing, one might ask. But the problem really is that no one knew.