Mathematicians, computer engineers and scientists in related fields should take a Hippocratic oath to protect the public from powerful new technologies under development, says Hannah Fry, an associate professor of mathematics at University College, London. The ethical pledge would commit scientists to think deeply about the possible applications of their work and compel them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society.
“We need a Hippocratic oath in the same way it exists for medicine,” Fry said. “In medicine, you learn about ethics from day one. In mathematics, it’s a bolt-on at best. It has to be there from day one and at the forefront of your mind in every step you take.”
The issue has become urgent now that researchers are building systems that take on life-or-death decisions. “We’ve got all these tech companies filled with very young, very inexperienced, often white boys who have lived in maths and computer science departments. They have never been asked to think about ethics, they have never been asked to consider how other people’s perspectives on life might be different to theirs, and ultimately these are the people who are designing the future for all of us.”