Expert Panel: What even IS ‘tech ethics’?

It’s been a pleasure, this past month, to launch a weekly series investigating issues in tech ethics, here at TechCrunch. As discussions around my first few pieces have taken off, I’ve noticed one question recurring in a number of different ways: what even IS “tech ethics”? I believe there’s lots of room for debate about what this growing field entails, and I hope that remains the case because we’re going to need multiple ethical perspectives on technologies that are changing billions of lives. That said, we need to at least attempt to define what we’re talking about, in order to have clearer public conversations about the ethics of technology.

Fortunately, I was recently able to gather a group of three whipsmart thinkers who are each emerging as leaders in the tech ethics field, and who each do “big-picture” work, looking at the (enormous) field as a whole rather than being limited to knowledge of a single narrow technology or sector. As you’ll see below, none of the three offers a one-size-fits-all definition of tech ethics, which is a good indicator of why their perspectives are particularly trustworthy. If you want to understand a field this big and this new, always look to the kind of thoughtful, introspective leaders you’ll find below, rather than settling for quick and easy answers.

Kathy Pham is a computer scientist, product leader and serial founder whose work has spanned Google, IBM, Harris Healthcare Solutions, and the federal government at the United States Digital Service at the White House, where she was a founding product and engineering member. As a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, Kathy co-leads the Ethical Tech Working Group and focuses on ethics and social responsibility with an emphasis on engineering culture, artificial intelligence, and computer science curricula. Kathy also is a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.


Hilary Cohen, a former Program Strategist at the Obama Foundation and analyst at McKinsey & Company, is currently leading a new initiative on Ethics and Technology at Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society. She recently managed the process of creating a popular new, team-taught Stanford course, “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change.”


Jessica Baron holds a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science and is a prolific and widely read freelance writer and educator on the ethics of technology, among other issues. I am a big fan of her regular tech ethics writing, for Forbes.


When ethics and tech collide

Greg Epstein: Thank you all so much for joining me. I have been really looking forward to this conversation, because I find myself after a year of somewhat immersing myself in the subject, still trying to figure out exactly what tech ethics actually is.