Ethical Engineering

4 minute read

Throught my time in academia, there was always a sense of preparation. I was preparing for something great, something good, something impactful and useful and [insert another positive adjective here]. Surely 11 years after high school were spent solely on learning so that I can change the world afterwards, right? even in a very small way, right? as long as it benefits humanity in some way, right?

Not quite.

What I have now discovered, is that all of this preparation and learning has been technical preparation, it taught me how to do things, not why I should be doing something, or even what I should be doing to have a positive impact. Throughout my education (which I shall henceforth call my technial training, or TT for short), there was no mention of the bigger picture. When I learned how to design a microprocessor, there was no discussion of where that can be used and what impact it would have. That same microprocessor can be used in a children’s toy that distracts a child while their parents drink their tea - harmless, mildly useful, not my life’s purpose to design this but wouldn’t mind doing it. However, that same microprocessor can be used in a missile guidance system that will lead to destruction or the threat thereof – not a personal goal of mine! The microprocessor can also be used in medical equipment, communication infrastructure, clocks, computers, anything with a digital circuit, really. But now that I know how to design one, which of those varied end-goals should I work on? How do I choose the end goal? The bigger question that I am trying to get at is: How do I align my work with my personal ethics/morals? And my criticism of the current educational system (or TT system) is that it avoids that question altogether.

The only mention of ethics during my graduate studies was a 3-hour mandatory seminar titled “Ethics in Research”. I can summarize the 3 hours in 2 words: don’t cheat. There were also detailed examples of what would happen to you if you get caught cheating or plagiarizing. Is that really the standard of morals that we (as engineers) should be held up against? Is it enough that we don’t cheat to be good engineers? Does that encompass our requirement of ethics. Is there nothing else we need to be ethical about? Googling the definition of ethics, I get this: “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”. Hmmm, so what are morals? “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”. OK, so the only principles of right an wrong that I need as an engineer are apparently “don’t cheat”, at least according to my TT, that is..

Instead, I think we should start integrating morals in every part of our education. Every course should have a discussion on the implications of what was just taught, students need to research not just how to build something, but why it should be built, and what they should try to build next to make the world a better place. And this should extend to the workplace as well, in job interviews, aspiring engineers should ask companies on how their role will benefit humanity, and whether it is aligned with basic shared morals that we all have. Morals should become an everyday conversation topic amongst engineers, otherwise how do we trust engineers with building our world?

Indeed, to transform our world into an ethical one, we need to start with the engineers who build it. Granted, we also need policies and other top-down approaches to avoid greed (which seems to be the current motivator). I remember hearing the quarterly speeches given by the CEO of a big company that I was part of, and the entire talk was about “market share”, “profit”, “dividend”, and of course the climax: “the bonus percentage” that will go into engineers pockets. This is when the auditorium would typically roar in applause, at the promise of more money, an indication that we were “good engineers” this past quarter.. sigh. Is this really what we have become? Simple containers of technical knowledge for the prospect of converting that knowledge to money at some point? Companies should start with how they made a positive impact, there should be reviews of how the technology being developed is impacting the world, and whether that aligns with the morals of the engineers who built it. In fact, companies should have a moral manifesto of their own, that they should be measured against. “Don’t do evil” (Google’s old slogan) is not enough. We need something more comprehensive that is revisited at every quarterly sync, instead of just focusing on profit numbers and market share.

I am three years into my career now and I am still asking the same question - how can I use the TT that I aggregated over the past decade to do something useful. I can’t help but think that I should’ve gotten some guidance with answering that question. We should weave morals into our education and work institutions to train engineers to “Do the right thing” (Google’s new slogan). Perhaps that way we could have more engineers trying to solve climate change, inequality, poverty and disease, and less engineers building weapons or designing gadgets and services for rich consumers.