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What effect do codes of ethics have in software development?

ByGregory Zenin

Nov 7, 2018

It seems that most professions, whether it be law or chemical engineering, have their own ethical codes. However, those fields that have seen recent developments are only now discovering their ethical boundaries. Software development seems to be part of this contingent. Earlier this year, one of the largest computing societies, the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, has updated its code of ethics. But one has to ask: is it worth it?

Software developing is a science. Broadly speaking, it is the collective processes involved in creating and maintaining software programmes (Microsoft is probably the most prominent example). In July 2018, ACM developed its own code of ethics for software development – a seemingly big step in the company’s future. However, new research from North Carolina State University shows that the code of ethics does not appear to affect the decisions made by software developers. More specifically, Emerson Murphy-Hill, the co-author of a paper on the work and one of the associate professors of computer science at NC State, said, “We applauded the decision to update the ACM code of ethics, but wanted to know whether it would actually make a difference.”

But in order to examine why a code of ethics is pointless for this particular example, we need to realise why a code of ethics would be useful at all. Computers have a central role in all of our daily lives because we all have some kind of software, whether it is in industry, government, medicine or education. Through developing software systems to maintaining them, developers play a huge role in our lives. This, in turn, gives them the power to cause progress or to cause harm to society at large. In order for software developers to have a beneficial role in society, it would make sense to have a legally binding code of ethics, such as the one that ACM proposed. In a time where firms are plagued by scandals, such as when Volkswagen manipulated its technology to monitor vehicle emissions, it may indeed be seen as necessary to reach an ethical conclusion.

But for some, this might all be for nought. For the study at North Carolina University, researchers developed 11 written scenarios involving ethical challenges, most of which were drawn from real life. The study included 105 US software developers with five or more years of experience and 63 software engineering graduate students at a university. Half of the study participants were shown a copy of the ACM code of ethics, the other half were simply told that ethics are important as part of an introductory overview of the study. All study participants were then asked to read each scenario and state how they would respond to the scenario.

There was no significant difference in the results – having people review the code of ethics beforehand did not appear to influence their responses, according to Murphy-Hill. Perhaps, while it may be admirable to maintain a robust code of ethics, it is hard to find any effect of the code of ethics on developer decision-making. How, then, should ethical behaviour be promoted if guidelines don’t have an effect?

Even if the topic of a code of ethics may not strictly be relevant in today’s software development era, it may be extremely useful when Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes the norm in the not too distant future. As the AI revolution accelerates even further, society could be using AI as often as computers. For some industries, it could be the next stage of their evolution. As our reliance deepens, so the safety net protecting us must strengthen. Perhaps this is where the code of ethics may play a key role in software development. Whether it is discussing driverless cars or robots that could sift through documents in seconds, the groundwork for a code of ethics in the software industry will be vital and it is a positive sign that it is already being discussed.

And so, ACM’s experiment with a code of ethics may not have paid off in the short term, but it has laid the foundation for something extremely important. When our reliance on technology, specifically one that can think on its own, increases it will be such a code of ethics that we turn to first. Granted it must be further developed and further explored.


Image credit: Nick Youngson via Alpha Stock Images

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