A chat with a Chief Operating Officer

I chatted about ethics and technology, with Sebastian Müeller.

On 12 December 2019, Sebastian and I sat down at the Singapore office of Minglabs, an organisation where Sebastian is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer. Let me briefly recall the approximately one-hour-long chat, using a format of Question-and-Answer (Q&A) below.

Q: “Why are you interested in ethics?”

A: “I do not have [an academic] background in ethics or philosophy. I studied Computer Science in Germany. My thinking changed after I had a son – he is three years old now – and I have done much more reading since.”

Q: “I don’t mean to offend you personally, but if we talk about ethics, there is the danger of being a hypocrite, that is, saying one thing and doing another. How do you ensure you are not a hypocrite?”

A: “Humans are fallible. If someone does what he says – if he walks the talk – he is an angel. [Having said that,] I try to be better today than I was yesterday.”

Q: “About Andrew Yang… [in the U.S., who proposed a Department of the Attention Economy]”

A: “Algorithm Oversight. Right now, there is a gap: the regulation-authorities have to figure out what is happening in these algorithms. It takes time to come up with regulations, and meanwhile, technology keeps moving on. They have to be paid well, because they are the best of the best [that is, those whom The Government (may) recruit to regulate algorithms that appear in software]. This is one area that I think Singapore does well in: the ministers are well-paid. In the U.S. or in Europe, working in The Government means taking a pay-cut.”

Q: “You mentioned reading. What are some of those books?”

A: “I'll email you after our chat.” [Later, Sebastian emails:]

  1. Cathy O'Neil. (2016). “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases inequality and threatens democracy”.
  2. Brad Smith. (2019). “Tools and weapons: The promise and the peril of the Digital Age”.
  3. Yancey Strickler. (2019). “This could be our future: A manifesto for a more generous world”.
  4. Tim O'Reilly. (2017). “WTF?: What's The Future and why it's up to us”.

The Q&A above represents only a portion of the entirety of my chat with Sebastian, which concluded with agreeing that applying ethics to technology meant (highly skilled) people co-operating or collaborating, across various fields of expertise. As Sebastian put it, “I observe; I act within my sphere of influence… [but] I cannot solve the problem on my own.”

However, Sebastian seems optimistic, if not hopeful: “[if I] keep repeating a message [about ethics, to the audience of my various talks], maybe the message will get in.”

(Sebastian posts at Medium.com: https://medium.com/@sm5c )