Compensation: finally, we need to clarify who pays when things go wrong, since new technologies not only generate great benefits but also impose significant burdens and harms. Amazon’s Alexa recently told a ten-year-old girl to touch a live plug with a penny, encouraging the girl to do what could potentially lead to severe burns or even the loss of an entire limb.[1] Fortunately, the girl’s mother heard Alexa’s suggestion, intervened, and made sure her daughter stayed safe.
But when responsibility brings people into conversation like that, it also protects against the threats to social sustainability. Responsibility demands equality and thus opposes discrimination. Responsibility demands mutual respect and thus opposes injustice. And responsibility demands conversation and thus opposes polarisation. But what can we actually do about it? To make a start, I suggest that we publicly discuss and determine three aspects of responsibility in the use of new technologies:
Blame: we need to determine what kind of answer we expect from people, and under what conditions those answerable should face blame or legal punishment. What are the standards that developers and users of new technologies ought to live up to, and who bears the burden of proof? Responsibility and Sustainability
Written by Maximilian Kiener
Answerability: ahead of time, we need to determine who is under an obligation to explain what and to whom. For instance, what exactly is it about products like Alexa that Amazon ought to be able to explain to the victims of harm or society at large?
The ABC of Responsible Use of Technology
But what if the girl had been hurt? Who would have been responsible: Amazon for creating Alexa, the parents for not watching their daughter, or the licensing authorities for allowing Alexa to enter the market?
Such questions of responsibility are very difficult to answer. When we use new technologies, such as AI, we may know, in principle, that Alexa can come up with bad ideas, that autonomous cars can hit pedestrians, and that medical AI can misdiagnose patients. But we cannot know when exactly these things happen, why they happen, and how to guard against them. Often, we’re simply unable to avert harm. So, on what grounds should we then be responsible?
Unfortunately, we cannot just set aside the questions of responsibility. We need clarity, or otherwise we fail to use of AI sustainably. The general idea about sustainability is this: it is about how we can satisfy the needs that people have today without frustrating the needs that will exist tomorrow. Often, the environment comes to mind: environmental sustainability asks how we can use natural resources so that our planet also remains a habitable place for future generations. The Question of Responsibility
This is where responsibility comes in. The core idea about responsibility lies in its very name: response-ability is about giving responses or answers, and it concerns the conditions under which people are obliged to do so. A responsible person is one who can be asked to answer, explain, or justify their conduct to others. If you’re responsible in this sense, it may still be inappropriate to blame or punish you, at least when you have a good explanation. But in any case, you owe it to others that you give that explanation and potentially also apologise.
This is not to say the responsibility, as answerability, is the magic cure against threats to social sustainability. There is more we need to do, for sure. But it shows that responsibility can play an important role in ensuring the socially sustainable use of new technologies. And for this reason, we should not take the topic lightly.
This type of responsibility is like a conversation. It brings together those who caused harm and those who suffered harm. What is more, it requires that people commit to certain moral values: to respect each other as moral equals in that conversation, mutually to recognise their standpoints and interests, and maybe even to make amends in the end.
[1] But sustainability has a social dimension too: social sustainability asks how we can create societal structures that not only satisfy our interests today but also help people to live a good life, respect each other, and enjoy peace tomorrow. The greatest threats to social sustainability are polarisation, discrimination, inequality, and injustice. And by now, we know that some of the latest technologies have the tendency to create or at least exacerbate these threats.

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