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The Case for Ethical Literacy in Blockchain

Not too long ago, investment mogul Warren Buffett dismissed cryptocurrency as "rat poison". Yet the price of bitcoin rose to hedge against a "QE infinity" (massive scale spending) bubble.

Wider applications of underlying blockchain technology are growing. At the end of 2020, Cambodia launched Project Bakong, the first blockchain-based Central Bank Approved (CBA) Digital Currency. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will also enable fuller adoption of blockchain through the agreements on data storage and e-signature. With P2P (Peer-to-Peer) exchange of value, blockchain is poised to advance the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Simply put, blockchain will change the way we do business. And this is why Singaporean universities have pushed for digital literacy of blockchain. However, blockchain applications are not just defined by their technology. The cultural attitudes of the people creating the blockchain and user interface, and the social issues which arise, will involve ethical considerations.

Many such considerations exist in the emerging field of fusing Artificial Intelligence (AI) to blockchain, such as a smart contract being powered by AI. For example, the fusion of a neural network (AI) to blockchain can facilitate automatic negotiation of contractual prices between parties, based on past transactions. This is considered an "on-chain" process, where AI and blockchain are joined without an active human role. Where does the ethical dilemma come in then? Let’s look at a few scenarios.

When the “on-chain” process manifests in an app with an interface that is inclusionary for non-digital natives, such as a smartphone app, it comes with its own set of unique ethical considerations. Can a user change their mind by withdrawing from this AI-powered smart contract, after agreeing to it? Or can the user's loved ones access the app to act in his or her best interests, if the user has mental health issues?

With the rapid progress of blockchain technology, and when one considers the fact that one in four Singaporeans would be 65 years old and above by 2030, we should perhaps give more thought to the moral dilemmas which arise from technological applications. For all the benefits from the computational technology of blockchain, and the capability for private details to be kept secure during transactions, prevalent ethical issues remain. 

For example, with the ageing population, should the app be designed to promote decision-making powers by granting access to a user's loved ones, if the user is informed? From a design perspective, do we then build this access "on-chain" into the blockchain technology? Or should we build this "off-chain" by requiring written or deemed consent, between the user and loved ones? Whatever the choice, these ethical considerations should be treated as part of the blockchain's design, rather than an afterthought.

In universities, for applied research involving human subjects, researchers must submit their research application for an ethics approval by the host university's Institutional Review Board (IRB). Furthermore, researchers would usually have completed at least an introductory ethics course by an internationally recognised entity. The point is that ethics literacy is ingrained. Researchers intuitively build ethical considerations into a research design, even before submission to the IRB for approval.

Given blockchain's potential to shape our daily lives, they could perhaps adopt similar practices. It is plausible that the companies who own and sell this technology might, over time, include ethical considerations as part of its environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework. One prospect is for a company's corporate and social responsibility (CSR) programme to articulate and fund initiatives, which deliver social benefits for the whole community, through this company's blockchain applications. Staff can be certified, as an ethics manager, to form part of the ESG framework for blockchain.

Universities are optimal spaces to develop ethical literacy. As a university of social sciences, SUSS draws on each school's distinct expertise through cross-disciplinary teaching. 

In SUSS’ law course on emerging technologies, students learn more than just "legal tech" (the technology which supports legal practice), or the regulatory aspects of blockchain. They are able to grasp the gamut of a blockchain technology stack (the range of technological solutions used to run an application) from experts in other faculties. This allows them to be familiar with the app interface of the blockchain as well as the “nuts and bolts.”  

By contrast, students in other programmes, such as business, begin from a cross-disciplinary introduction to legal standards concerning technology, and the law's reactive nature in a dynamic area. The aim is that graduates should be "solution managers'' who purposefully advance ethical considerations at various levels. In short, human autonomy must be an overarching goal.

Notably, a solution manager must be aware of the people who code or programme, and be sensitive to ground design thinking (commercial and technological viability) to sustain a company's blockchain applications. To this extent, SUSS reinforces ethical literacy through experiential courses.

An example is the university's partnership with Alibaba Cloud to award a credit-bearing minor in entrepreneurship, if a student secures funding or generates revenue of at least S$250,000. These students pitch their commercial ideas, which engage technology (such as AI or blockchain), to venture capitalists and angel investors.

The students' ideas form case studies for ethical literacy. This authenticity supports the students' willingness to learn. The larger issue that we brush aside is a need to equip ourselves with the knowledge of new technology on the pretence that such technology can lead to harm, without adequately researching while conveniently remaining digitally illiterate. But the aim is not just to teach students to identify ethical issues. They should struggle with these issues surfacing in a live context, alongside commercial decisions being made from ideation to a finished product. This is where true learning occurs.

If the curricula is delivered well, a strong outcome is for the students to be more comfortable with inconclusive answers. They will also be prepared to face any dilemma in the real world that tests their ethical literacy.

This article is an adaption from Code is Law and Law is Code - Can Blockchain be Without Ethics? first published in The Business Times by Professor David Lee, who teaches the Finance Degree programme and leads the SUSS FinTech and Blockchain Group, and Dr Daniel Seah who teaches the Law programme at SUSS.


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