Ethics an important factor in technology

Engineering students are aware that their technologies might not be used for good.

Andrew Smude has had a lot on his plate this semester.

As an aerospace engineering and mechanics senior, Smude has been working as team leader with nine other students on their senior design project – designing and constructing an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle at a maximum weight of one kilogram.

The UAV is a camera- equipped, remote-controlled flying device intended as a safer means of military scouting, though some law enforcement agencies now use them as well, Smude said.

Out of the seven project options, Smude said he chose the UAV program both for the opportunity to work with project sponsor Lockheed Martin – a prominent name in homeland security – and as a way to take part in the emerging popularity of the “next generation” technology of UAVs.

“It sounded interesting,” Smude said, “especially the idea of making it under one kilogram. That’s a hard thing to do.”

Beyond the challenge of just creating the UAV lies another dilemma. Smude said his group was responsible for examining potential ethical problems their project could pose, and then suggesting mitigation.

“Whenever you’re building a new technology, there is always the possibility that someone’s going to use it in the wrong way,” Smude said.

Smude’s team considered the privacy invasion the UAV could potentially cause, he said.

For a solution, his group suggested working with the legislature to create a specific foundation of laws against using the technology as a personal spy.

But these ethical questions stretch far beyond just this project.

In the field of aerospace engineering, where much of the job availability resides in the defense industry, senior design professor Jeff Hammer said a strong dose of ethics is a critical part of what he teaches.

Hammer said when discussing the possibility of entering the defense industry with his students, he makes it clear they will come across some future questions that might not have easy answers.

He said when dealing with emerging technology, engineers always have to consider the ways their product could be put to use.

“I tell them, ‘One day you might turn on the news and see a big hole in the ground, and you’re going to know that you had something to do with it,’ ” Hammer said. “Everyone gets kind of quiet after I say that.”

He said with technology like the UAV, the intended use is positive but there is still potential for abuse.

Hammer suggested the potential a UAV would have as a mini drug smuggler as one example of how the technology could be misused if in the wrong hands. He made it clear that, with the regulated allocation of the product, this would be unlikely, and a result of someone building it themselves rather than being able to purchase it.

“How to do these things is in the public domain; the genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “So someone could do this, but there’s no chance it will happen from us.”

Isaac Landecker, aerospace engineering and mechanics senior and member of Smude’s group, said as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, ethics have been an important part of his education.

He said even designing the UAV, the group had to rely on an ethical framework.

Although information on how to design a UAV could have been found online, the group members decided it would be unethical not to do the work themselves.

“Even though it took us a lot longer to come up with some of the equations and answers that we needed, we still did it the ethical way instead of just taking shortcuts and using other peoples’ work,” he said.

Smude said he hasn’t decided whether he is going to pursue a career specifically in the defense industry yet, but he hasn’t ruled it out.

When he does enter the workforce as an engineer, Smude said his ethical justification for what type of work he does will be weighing the positive against negative potential uses of his products.

“If it’s something I can’t justify, I’m definitely not going to do it,” Smude said.