Startups, technology and human rights

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In her first article for Startup News, Natalie Marinho of Freo-based startup Voyant AR writes how emerging technology impacts human rights and how those rights might be best protected…

It’s not uncommon while scrolling through one’s social media feed to come across clickbait headlines and fear-inducing sound bites. They foreshadow the imminent collapse of civilisation caused by some type of disruptive technology like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, 3D printing, drones, robots or self driving cars.

Often absent, however, is a thoughtful and considered discussion around the development of these technologies and how to avoid worst-case scenarios. But where to begin? How are founders supposed to evaluate such risks? And what’s the cost of not managing them?

It would be almost impossible to create a set of rules or guidelines to encompass every single emerging technology, every possible iteration of that technology and the myriad of subsequent applications. A far simpler and practical approach is to focus on the central issue: how do we protect ourselves from potential harm? To this end, the existing framework around human rights could provide an ideal place to start.

Human Rights and Technology

The Australian Human Rights Commission launched a human rights and technology project earlier this year.

This included the release of the “Human Rights and Technology Issues Paper” followed by nationwide consultation with invited industry experts. The Perth roundtable discussion was held earlier this month with representatives from the Commission including current Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santow.

It was a pleasure to be invited as a representative from Voyant AR, exploring how technology can impact on human rights and what can be done to ensure that human rights remain protected in the future.

Industry experts included industry, government and civic organisations with representatives from a wide range of sectors including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), computing, blockchain, legal, web accessibility, and disability services.

Industry round table on technology and human rights

Those working in the startup world may well be wondering: that all sounds nice but what’s it got to do with me and my product?

Human rights and technology are inextricably intertwined

When most people think about human rights they may picture a foreign country with cases of extreme human rights violations such as human trafficking, ethnic cleansing or unlawful detainment.

But human rights are very much a part of everyday living.

Our seemingly benign every day interaction with technology – like checking email, scrolling through Facebook and swiping left or right – is the product of millions of choices during design, prototyping, development and deployment.

Each choice has the potential to erode human rights or to strengthen and protect them.

  • Right to equity and non-discrimination. Are people discriminated against based on their race, colour, religion, sex, sexuality or disability? Some dating app and websites have been accused of allowing racial profiling.
  • Freedom of expression. How do we balance open communication against the dissemination of hate speech and the proliferation of fake news?
  • Right to benefit from scientific progress. Can all sectors of the community access and use new technology? Barriers can include cost, regional location, language, cognitive ability and access to the internet.
  • Freedom from violence. Does the technology facilitate or incite violence and abuse? What design improvements or safeguards could protect users?
  • Accessibility. Can people afford or access the technology required to fulfill basic tasks like pay bills or apply for a job? How can we make technologies and processes as inclusive as possible?
  • National security/counter-tourism. How do we balance security against threats, without infringing on human other rights such as privacy?
  • Right to privacy. The current debate on opting out of My Health Record demonstrates the confusion Australians have around data retention and our right to medical privacy
  • Access to information and safety for children. How can children benefit from technology while remaining protected? From sharing photos and personal information to long term impact on emotional development.
  • Right to fair trial and procedural fairness. What is the role of AI in the judicial process? Is there a possibility of gender and race bias in AI?

Responsible innovation

The term “responsible innovation” is rising in popularity – and with good reason.

Anyone working with disruptive technologies should understand what human rights are and explore the potential impact their product or service may have.

And to be clear, that’s everyone’s human rights. Not just the ones included in your target market. In fact, just targeting a specific market may mean that you are excluding or hindering access to the elderly, disabled or people of a certain race.

It may not sound easy but it’s not impossible either.

Successful startups are those who already know their customers and strive for optimal user experiences. So it’s not a complete paradigm-shift to also consider your customer’s human rights and how to protect them.

The Human Rights Issues Paper includes a quote from the current Australian Human Rights Commissioner that neatly sums up the idea of responsible innovation, “Technology should exist to serve humanity. Whether it does will depend on how it is deployed, by whom and to what end.”

We may fear robots, AI and fake news but ultimately, it’s everyday people who are creating and sending them out into the world.

The question is: what kind of principles are guiding their decisions?

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A version of this article was originally published on Natalie’s blog.