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Why it's time to start regulating computer professionals

Students in Electronic Engineering laboratory

Practitioners need to learn about their ethical responsibilities from the outset

With technology dominating our daily lives and artificial intelligence making key decisions that affects our security and safety, the time is ripe to introduce professional and ethical standards for computer engineers.

That is the view of Gaurav Malik, senior lecturer in Computer Science and Informatics at the University of East London.

In a podcast, published on the Faculti platform, he points out that many of the traditional professions are required to understand the legal, social and ethical framework that shapes their actions.

Meanwhile, computer practitioners who, arguably, have more impact on people’s lives can operate in relative freedom.

Mr Malik teaches a module on professional issues to undergraduates with the School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering. He said, “Doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers – they understand their legal and ethical responsibilities from day one. Your average computing student does not realise they actually have more impact on people’s lives than, say, a doctor may do.”

He points out the growing need for an ethical dimension after crises and scandals and challenges that have beset the sector: from the misuse of personal data, to the creation of race biased algorithms, to the dilemmas of programming life-or-death decision-making protocols into a self-driving car.

He said, “As a profession we are optimists, but we need to recognise that technology can be misused. We’ve seen this – when Facebook started up it was meant for people to share stories and pictures, but it ended up manipulating entire political systems.

“Computing is not just a technology any more or a simple tool of productivity. It governs our choices at a fundamental level. Our homes, our travel, our work, our private lives are all dominated by algorithms that few really understand and – as has been seen – can easily be manipulated in a way that can be viewed as devious. It’s vital we teach programmers about their ethical responsibilities.”

He says the challenges of regulating the profession and setting industry standards is made all the more difficult by the global and fragmented nature of the industry and the many informal career pathways that computer practitioners can follow.

He said, the British Computer Society – the chartered institute for the IT sector in the UK – and the Association of Computer Machinery in the US both have a code of conduct that its members need to adhere to but these bodies do not play the same policing role as seen in other sectors, such as electrical or civil engineering.

Mr Malik said, “Until we start requiring all practicing computing professionals to be chartered and registered in the same way as dentists, lawyers and doctors, we will see a situation where practitioners will continue to work in an unregulated manner risking the reputation of the entire sector at a time when ethical standards have never been under such scrutiny and in such demand.”

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