The ethics of design - moral considerations in the development of assistive technology

The ethics of design - moral considerations in the development of assistive technology

The Paralympic Games have highlighted the extremes of human endeavour and the technologies that support it, from running blades and handcycles to "sip and puff" steering for sailing.

Professor Brian Brock, personal Chair in Moral and Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, is a leading ethicist exploring the relationship between new technologies and disabilities.

In an opening event for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, he joined Saqib Shaikh, a blind computer programmer for Microsoft, to share perspectives on ‘Technology, Disabilities and Ethics’ with a United Nations symposium.

Professor Brock said: “As the Paralympics have shown us, assistive technology can be used in hugely positive ways to benefit the lives of those with disabilities.

“It has enabled disabled athletes to compete in ways which would simply not have been possible otherwise and, particularly as AI technology grows, we are seeing the development of intelligent machines which can help to level the playing field and facilitate social inclusion for disabled people.

“I was honoured to be able to present alongside Shaikh who, as a software engineering manager, was project lead on Seeing AI - a smartphone app that reads not only written materials but also describes visual scenes, offering much more freedom and autonomy to people with visual impairments.”

But while the use of such technology can empower those with disabilities, Professor Brock says ethical considerations for their use stretch well beyond original intentions. Their discussion ranged widely across the ethical implications of this intersection of artificial intelligence and the inclusion of people with disabilities across many activities in modern society.

“Often products for disabled people are developed as a trojan horse for things that big tech aims to  make a lot of money from,” he added.

“Programs that can help autistic children to read the emotions on others faces can easily be used by advertisers to read our facial expressions as we react to their ads, for example.

“It is vital therefore to have open and critical conversation about the ethical implications of new technologies, and to pursue constructive dialogues like this one about such ethical issues as this technology continues to evolve.”

The University of Aberdeen is building a world-leading reputation in the intersection of faith and disability with a number of theologians within its department for Divinity focusing their research on the intersection between the two. It is home to both the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability and the Centre for Autism and Theology.