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Why the tech industry needs a moral compass

Technology has unintended consequences, says Martha Lane Fox – but technologists have an opportunity to make a difference

IT leaders must start to address the unintended consequences of their inventions, warned Martha Lane Fox during the second-day keynote at VMworld Europe in Barcelona.

The co-founder of the 1990s travel booking site Last Minute said: “In 1998 we wanted people to live their dreams, but this can have unintended consequences. When Amazon did something, Brent [Hoberman, co-founder of Last Minute] would email me to ask why were not doing the same thing.”

Having implemented a way to link a customer’s mailing address to a credit card, Lane Fox recalled how she had to take a call from an angry customer because the algorithm had wrongly assumed that the second ticket he had booked for a last-minute getaway was for his wife.

In her presentation, Lane Fox warned about the unintended consequences that society faces when people are left out of the digital revolution. Looking at the UK’s Brexit vote, she said: “While 50% of people in the UK say the internet is helping, only 12% felt it was good for society. I know I’ve been helped by it, but I’m not sure it has helped the modern world. People who use technology voted to remain in the EU.”

Lane Fox implied that people who were less tech-savvy were more likely to vote to leave the EU.

Looking at those people in society who are not digitally connected, Lane Fox said that a decade ago, 20% of the UK population had never used the internet.

It is the people who need the most from government who tend to get the worst service, said Lane Fox. “We must make sure everyone is connected to the internet,” she said. “When I hear politicians say we have 95% connectivity, what about the 5%?

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Lane Fox added: “We need to make sure the human is at the start of everything we do. I want to try to encourage the use of technology to solve the problems that really matter. Lead with a human, not the technology.”

The technology world faces many challenges, she said. “There are dark forces that I never imagined. We face massive challenges. There are value systems that are very different to our liberal values in the West.”

Lane Fox urged everyone in the tech industry to have an open discussion on the societal impact of technology. “I urge everyone to have a debate about technology use so that we can have resilience,” she said.

As a final thought, she added: “How are we going to review climate change? We have 12 years – and we have to use technology to help us.”

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