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Elbert Files: Ethics and technology


It’s easy to see unethical behavior in the past, Stanford University’s Martin Hellman will argue next week when he delivers the Robert Stewart Distinguished Lecture at Iowa State University. Slavery was wrong, as was denying voting rights to women and minorities, he noted in an email.

But evolving standards make it harder to recognize ethical lapses in the present, he said, even as scientific advances increase the consequences for failing to do so.

Rethinking national security is the subject of Hellman’s ISU lecture, which is based on a paper he wrote last April and a presentation he made in July to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany.
Hellman, who is a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford, will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday in ISU’s Memorial Union Sun Room. His appearance is part of a series of free community lectures launched 15 years ago to honor Robert Stewart, Iowa State’s first department chair of computer science.

Hellman said he plans to pose several difficult questions, including:

How ethical is society’s current response to climate change?

Have recent wars backfired and actually made the world less safe?

Does global security today require that we make even our adversaries feel more secure?

The questions, he said, are built around “eight lessons I learned the hard way.”
His eight aphorisms not only helped save his marriage 40 years ago, he said, they also helped shape his career as an award-winning scientist, computer engineer and entrepreneur who helped create the encryption technology that today enables secure transfer of trillions of dollars of commerce on the internet. 

Hellman’s first three lessons are simple. Avoid self-deception. Value outside help. And when possible, convert enemies to friends.
It’s when he moves more directly into ethics that things get complicated. 

Ethics is an evolutionary process, he explained, adding that we can, and should, all stay sharp by “correcting minor ethical lapses.”

Correcting lapses is not only good practice, Hellman said, it’s a must in an age when technology is constantly accelerating the pace of ethical evolution.

Much of Hellman’s presentation centers on the threat of global nuclear annihilation, which he explained in an “elevator pitch” as follows:

“In 1945 at the end of World War II, the United States was totally secure. Nobody could touch us. We’ve spent trillions of dollars since then to improve our national security. And what has been the result? A nation that can be destroyed in under an hour.”
“Something went really, really wrong,” he said. “In mathematics we would say there is at least one assumption that is off. I believe there are a dozen assumptions that are taken for granted but which are highly questionable once you think about them.”
Hellman went on to summarize a complicated mathematical formula that assesses the risk of global nuclear war at roughly 1% per year.

He suggested that since we’ve already dodged that bullet for nearly 70 years – narrowly avoiding nuclear Armageddon during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – maybe it’s time we try a different tact. 

In his final two lessons, Hellman declared “there is hope for humanity becoming more ethical,” and he said that if you ignore the headlines of the day, you can see it happening all around us. 

One key to spurring the transition, he said, “is getting curious instead of furious.”

“That’s needed internationally and at the personal level,” he said.

“We need to accelerate the process,” he continued. “Everyone can play a role.

“No one person can solve this problem, but if enough of us move things just a little bit, all together we can move things a lot.” n


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