Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=182497
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 12:49:34 PM CST
Stuart Feldman, vice president of engineering at Google, spoke about ethics in relation to innovations at the company. “Making it work and having an impact – it sounds like that’s the easy part,” he said. “Of course, that’s the expensive and hard part.”
‘Don’t be evil’: Google engineer discusses how the mega-company balances innovation and ethics
An audience of around 200 alumni, faculty and friends attended the talk, held at the Union League Club of Chicago. The School of Business Administration at Loyola University Chicago began The Dean’s Speaker Series on Responsible Leadership in 2007, Dean Abol Jalilvand said.
Chances are, if you’ve used the Internet, you’ve used software from Google. The multibillion dollar corporation offers dozens of free products from maps and e-mail to photo sharing and shopping results.
But these innovations come with a price, said Stuart Feldman, the vice president of engineering at the Mountain View, Calif. company. “Any change is going to be bad for someone, or relatively bad.”
The lecture, part of The Dean’s Speaker Series on Responsible Leadership at Loyola University Chicago, focused on awareness of ethical considerations when creating products.
Those costs can include anything from invading privacy, outpacing the competition or, in an increasingly technological world, removing some of the humanity from business equations.
“Google is sort of the digital version of Walmart,” said William Towns, a regional vice president for a nonprofit, who was present at Feldman’s talk, “Innovation and Ethics.”
Google employees must constantly tread the ethical line. For example, the Google Goggle application for phones lets users snap a picture of art, logos, wine, landscapes or even text. Using the magic of Google’s massive picture database, the program analyzes the photo and, if it recognizes it, returns search results with information about it.
Google initially took the technology one step further so that it could recognize faces. However, the idea of making personal information available by taking a photograph worried the developers.
“There’s an enormous creepiness about that,” Feldman said. Google abandoned the project.
However, audience member Drew Huening said that Google shirked an ethical responsibility by backing away.
“Someone else is going to do it,” he said. “Maybe if Google had done it and dominated the marketplace, they could make it so it is less evil.”
Google’s unofficial motto, "Don’t be evil,” sits alongside their formal mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Feldman said that because there always will be negative impacts to someone from new innovations, these two ideas are often in conflict.
On the surface, some products such as Google Translate may seem strictly beneficial. By providing a quick, decent translation service, Google opens up lines of discourse around the world.
“You can read stuff written in languages you didn’t know existed,” Feldman said.
It can also provide a humanitarian benefit. After the earthquake in the Caribbean, Haitian Creole sprang up on the list of available language translations.
But Feldman pointed out the cost.
“It gives Americans a stronger excuse for not understanding another language,” he said.
This means people might not learn about multiple cultures on a deep level. Of course, the reverse could happen – access to new ideas found in language could foster exploration into other societies.
Either way, a few translators are out of a job.
Google also changes the job market in areas such as advertising. Where there was a traditional structure of finagling, Google has implemented a system where advertisers bid online in real time on ad slots.
“As this grows, there will be more people who care about numbers in the raw sense than they will about being nice to someone and throwing them some business.”
Ad Exchange holds billions of auctions a day.
“With innovation comes responsibility,” Towns said about Google. “As they invent these things, there’s a certain point were, even if the possibilities are there, do you want to take it that far?”
While Feldman made no claims to being an ethics professor, he was well-suited to speak on innovation. He worked at Bell Labs and IBM, developed the programming language Fortran 77 and created computer software for UNIX operating systems.
Feldman made a clear distinction between innovation and invention. Invention is when something new – an idea for a business model, work of art, or way of doing something – is born. Innovation is the implementation of something new in society.
“Innovations are what change the world,” Feldman said. “Inventions are what, in many cases, make the innovation possible.”