A Call to Action

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A Call to Action
Communications of the ACM, March 2022, Vol. 65 No. 3, Pages 23-25
Computing Ethics
By Ronald M. Baecker

“We cannot put the genii back in the bottle, but we can ensure human control.”


Digital technologies for learning, health, politics, and commerce have enriched the world. Digital heroes like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Batya Friedman, Alan Kay, JCR Licklider, and Joe Weizenbaum have blazed trails. Yet there is trouble. We depend upon software that nobody totally understands. We are vulnerable to cyberterrorism. Privacy is overrun by surveillance capitalism. Totalitarian control advances. Daily Internet news matching our beliefs makes it difficult to tell true from false. People are addicted to devices. Jobs disappear without social safety nets. Digital leviathans threaten to control all commerce. Our values are threatened.


There are risks of premature use of AI in domains such as health, criminal justice, senior care, and warfare. Much current AI is unreliable, without common sense, deceptive in hiding that it is an algorithm, unable to explain decisions, unjust, neither accountable nor responsible, and untrustworthy.


Our digital dreams are now digital nightmares.


We cannot put the genii back in the bottle, but we can ensure human control. Our ethical duty as computer scientists is to do so. We can advise thoughtful citizens and society on productive actions. There is much we can do by ourselves. The digital world can be consistent with our values.

Citizens Can and Must Act

I will start with actions for ordinary people. I mean non-technical people who encounter technology daily—our parents, neighbors, and friends.


We must exercise self-control over digital technologies, limiting use of cellphones, and establishing periods of disconnection—for even days at a time. We can establish zones of unavailability—with family or with friends. When was the last time you rode on transit, and instead of texting or playing a game, you looked around, noticed something pleasing or bizarre, and even smiled and waved?


Parents can establish rules for appropriate digital immersion by their children. Just as there are bounds on TV viewing, there must be limits on Internet and social media time. Parents can explain their limits on digital junk food.


Many people feel inadequate with respect to technology. They feel they do not understand it, they cannot do it, and it is their fault because they are stupid. They are not stupid. Despite the work of UX professionals, functionality and complexity in software grow faster than simplicity. Users continue to be overwhelmed. Yet there are few tech concepts that cannot be explained by responsible computer professionals in plain language.


People should not put up with jargon: geekspeak. If someone uses: complexity … concurrency … phishing … platform … system, speakers must be asked to explain. Tell your parents and neighbors they can expect to have technology ideas and concepts explained clearly. GOFAI … identity theft … intelligent tutor … machine learning … precision medicine … user experience … all can be explained to enable people to feel less steamrolled by high-tech.


Underlying many technology applications are social and ethical questions about their use, about our priorities, and about justice and goodness. Answers to the questions drive actions with respect to tech and applicable regulations and laws. Computer scientists must participate in ethical action.

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About the Author:

Ronald M. Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a recipient of an ACM CHI Social Impact Award, an ACM Distinguished Speaker, organizer of the virtual community computers-society.org, and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives and Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do. Follow @ronbaecker for his daily thoughts.

See also:

  • Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do” by Ronald Baecker, Published November 27, 2021
  • Computers and Society – Resources for Learning and Thinking Ethically. “This website provide[s] helpful resources (organized using a logical hierarchy of literature in the field) for doing research on topics dealing with computers and society and computer ethics — curated links to books, research reports, law review articles, laws and regulations (from across the globe), essays and blogs, newspaper articles, and other relevant sources of information.