Friday, May 10, 2019

The Ethics of Interoperability

In many contexts (such as healthcare) interoperability is considered to be a Good Thing. Johns and Stead argue that "we have an ethical obligation to develop and implement plug-and-play clinical devices and information technology systems", while Olaronke and Olusola point out some of the ethical challenges produced by such interoperability, including "data privacy, confidentiality, control of access to patients’ information, the commercialization of de-identified patients’ information and ownership of patients’ information". All these authors agree that interoperability should be regarded as an ethical issue.

Citing interoperability as an example of a technical standard, Alan Winfield argues that "all standards can ... be thought of as implicit ethical standards". He also includes standards that promote "shared ways of doing things", "expressing the values of cooperation and harmonization".

But should cooperation and harmonization be local or global? American standards differ from European standards in so many ways - voltages and plugs, paper sizes, writing the date the wrong way. Is the local/global question also an ethical one?

One problem with interoperability is that it is often easy to find places where additional interoperability would deliver some benefits to some stakeholders. However, if we keep adding more interoperability, we may end up with a hyperconnected system of systems that is vulnerable to unpredictable global shocks, and where fundamental structural change becomes almost impossible. The global financial systems may be a good example of this.

So the ethics of interoperability is linked with the ethics of other whole-system properties, including complexity and stability. See my posts on Efficiency and Robustness. Each of these whole-system properties may be the subject of an architectural principle. And, following Alan's argument, an (implicitly) ethical standard.

With interoperability, there are questions of degree as well as of kind. We often distinguish between tight coupling and loose coupling, and there are important whole-system properties that may depend on the degree of coupling. (This is a subject that I have covered extensively elsewhere.)

What if we apply the ethics of interoperability to complex systems of systems involving multiple robots? Clearly, cordination between robots might be necessary in some situations to avoid harm to humans. So the ethics of interoperability should include the potential communication or interference between heterogeneous robots, and this raises the topic of deconfliction - not just for airborne robots (drones) but for any autonomous vehicles. Clearly deconfliction is another (implicitly) ethical issue. 

Note: for a more detailed account of the relationship between interoperability and deconfliction, see my paper with Philip Boxer on Taking Governance to the Edge (Microsoft Architecture Journal, August 2006). For deconfliction in relation to Self-Driving Cars, see my post Whom does the technology serve? (May 2019).

Mauricio Castillo-Effen and Nikita Visnevski, Analysis of autonomous deconfliction in Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Testing and Evaluation (IEEE Aerospace conference 2009)

Michael M. E. Johns and William Stead, Interoperability is an ethical issue (Becker's Hospital Review, 15 July 2015)

Milecia Matthews, Girish Chowdhary and Emily Kieson, Intent Communication between Autonomous Vehicles and Pedestrians (2017)

Iroju Olaronke and Olaleke Janet Olusola, Ethical Issues in Interoperability of Electronic Healthcare Systems (Communications on Applied Electronics, Vol 1 No 8, May 2015)

Richard Veryard, Component-Based Business (Springer 2001)

Richard Veryard, Business Adaptability and Adaptation in SOA (CBDI Journal, February 2004)

Alan Winfield, Ethical standards in robotics and AI (Nature Electronics Vol 2, February 2019) pp 46-48

Related posts: Deconfliction and Interoperability (April 2005), Loose Coupling (July 2005), Efficiency and Robustness (September 2005), Making the world more open and connected (March 2018) Whom does the technology serve? (May 2019)

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