Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner shared her Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 29 November 2017.
Last week, the Government announced the founding of the world’s first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to set standards for the use and ethics of artificial intelligence and data.
It’s our recently acquired addiction to data that means I can often be found contorting myself on a far flung balcony or lurking outside in the freezing cold just to stay connected to my almost inseparable alter ego – the internet. I’m not the only one practicing the art of data gymnastics and most of our lives have been utterly transformed because of the World Wide Web.
We know the power of a story, image or joke that zips around the globe in just a few minutes, possibly evoking laughter out loud and sustaining connections. Any of these that make an enormous impact go viral, fittingly hinting at the potential also for extensive infectious harm.
Similar technological leaps have occurred in other areas of our lives, most notably medicine. But what was distinctive about the internet until now was a lack of a comparable ethical system to that of medical ethics, which protects us from unregulated medical progress. Medicine and ethics have gone hand in hand for centuries.
In contrast, the internet and particularly social media, have developed exponentially while we’re running to catch up with making them ethical and accountable.
It’s certainly time to ask those essential ethical questions about social media, big data and artificial intelligence. What’s totally unacceptable and why? How do we best learn from the use and abuse of science to inform ethics and guide regulation? This is especially critical because we’ve already seen the harm that rapidly growing technologies can cause. We’ve seen the impact on mental illness and physical safety, through cyber bullying and unfettered extremist material.
Strikingly, Proverbs teaches that the power of life and death are in the tongue, or now in the way we communicate through our tiny Smartphone keyboards and how we programme our computers.
Through too many slip ups, I’ve learnt that I must be immensely careful how I use my words – spoken or written. I’ve seen the impact of a tactless text, a silly social media post or a mean meme. Judaism compares words to an arrow that cannot be recalled once out of the bow of our mouths, as even something seemingly fleeting like words can harm irrevocably. The same goes for data.
Life and death through the use and misuse of data is not a euphemism. We have to tread ethically and thoughtfully as fragility is at our fingertips.