Many organisations are exploring how they can use technology in a more responsible way – now and in the future. But ‘responsible tech’ is a tricky thing to define. What may appear ‘good’ in one circumstance, may be seen completely differently in another time, context or culture.

Professor Maja Horst recently sat down with Tech for Life to discuss this concept and how tech can be used to positively impact the world.

Why is responsible technology vital today?

There is much happening around responsible tech and tech for good. Which begs the question: why now? Prof. Horst highlights the range of initiatives and tools being developed, which has made the need for responsible tech more acute. She explains, “Engaging with technology as a non-tech person is one of the most joyful things that I do. Because tech is impacting every part of our lives, it’s vital that all people are involved.

“We’re in a really interesting environment at the moment where people are interested in what tech companies are bringing to the table because of where technology is now. People are taking it more seriously – but are still overwhelmed by the breadth of technology. When we are in the middle of revolutionary changes, it is difficult to orient oneself, but still important to try.

“At the same time it is important to understand what drives younger generations. They want to do something that’s meaningful and that’s creating real change across all industries and organisations. They’re less payment-driven and more about having a purpose. That’s why it’s vital to harness the good in technology. Because it drives a lot of younger people – tomorrow’s leaders.”

What is responsible technology?

Still, in discussions, the concept of responsible technology remains subjective. In Prof. Horst’s view, responsible technology is about being “Response-able”. “It’s about engaging with wider stakeholders, not just making technology to make a lot of money. You must focus on the process and attitude, more so than the product. Organisations must also take a longer view, to keep responding, keep thinking ahead. To engage with all influences and take things in – and respond.”

The challenge of responsible tech

However, it can be naive to aim solely at creating a ‘good’ technology. As Prof. Horst explains, “The terminator gene was originally created on the advice of a bioethicist with good intentions. But as we later found out, it turned out to cause severe problems as well. Something that appears good at first sight, might have bad long-term consequences.

“Organisations cannot take for granted that technology is good for mankind. We must ask the hard questions to make sure that we end up where we want to be – tech will never be proven to be absolutely good. We don’t know what tomorrow brings, so we need to be alert.”

This involves cross-industry collaboration as well as openness to dialogue and transparency.

Ethics can also give a foundation, but Prof. Horst points out that in real life, ethical rules are often in conflict with each other. “The question then becomes: how can you weigh each decision up? For myself, at the end of the day I have to be able to look in the mirror and believe that I did my best. Even if that involves choosing from two evils.

If everyone tries their best, then the world gets better.”

The scope of responsible tech

Further questions arise when considering the scope of responsible technology. Whether it applies to the environment, data privacy, climate change or more.

“It all boils down to sustainability and longevity. Out of the last ten years we have created an economy with many low paid, unstable jobs. A lot of them due to new technologies. But that destabilizes the entire economy because people cannot make a proper livelihood. It might pay off in the short-term but in the future, the entire country suffers.

“Then there’s social cohesion. If society gets increasingly polarised, those who feel left out and out of control will become marginalised and potentially lash out. Making technology accessible to all goes a long way in promoting cohesion.

“Discussions are what binds society together. Organisations, Governments and people must have transparent conversations over technology and where it’s taking us.”

Looking to the future

So, for technology to become truly responsible, organisations and people must work together to spread dialogue. Everyone must engage in discussions about the technology that will permeate our lives.

“It’s also critical that organisations – and society – understands that you cannot do responsible tech in one solid go. Instead, today’s focus must be on starting the momentum. To get companies comfortable with working towards responsible tech and not to poke holes in their existing structure and processes.” No organisation is going to open-up if it’s scared of public backlash.

Prof. Horst emphasises the need to consider all technology, not just IT, “Responsible tech isn’t just about ‘high tech’ but also genetics, agriculture and much more. Fixing this issue now is about ensuring the survival of society, the continuity of countries and the longevity of our planet.”