The Return of Philosophy

The more one you reflect on the power of design, the more you worry about the ethics of it. If you can influence behavior of a large number of people – a significant chunk of humanity, what would you do? What should you do?

This question seems incredibly hard, and as the world becomes more connected, it becomes more complex, with strong ripple effects, and small decisions can have exceedingly large effects.

And in such a world thoughtful people turn to philosophy, particularly ethics.

In the book Creative Selection, the author worked on the design of the keyboard of the iPhone – the very first keyboard on a glass surface. He shares how Apple took an ethical stand – by never allowing  autocorrection for demeaning words.

We found we had to add a complete collection of hate speech to the dictionary and explicitly mark those words to prevent the system from offering them as autocorrections – imagine trying to type “nugget” but narrowly mistyping the first vowel or the last consonant. We did not want to offer racial epithets as a “helpful” aid, and we resolved that we would never provide software assistance for attempts to slur or demean.

By taking this stand, they prevented a lot of negative communication which might have taken place on the billions of iPhones in use today.

It’s not just about design though, investors, and machine learning engineers also face philosophical dilemmas. I will take them up in a later post.

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