Von Yvonne Hofstetter
Photo: Yvonne Hofstetter (private)
Everything is software, or as Marc Andreessen put it in 2011: "Software is eating the world." That's not just a good thing. While we've come a long way with software, we've also encountered many problems. Full stack developers know their toolbox, but know almost nothing about the domains they are developing software for. Startups provide new digital offerings that are often just tinkered using the tools of 3rd party providers – a typical phenomenon of digitization, by the way, when even more data is being generated from data and digital business models are being stacked on top of each other. Our expectation of software is exaggerated when it is supposed to compensate for hardware malfunctions in mission-critical systems and does not succeed, as has become tragically known from an American aircraft manufacturer. Last but not least, global digital platforms are doing great damage to democracy and the rule of law – which cannot easily be remedied in hindsight, since it was not prevented early enough and a priori. Quality cannot be tested into software. Quality must be existent in software inherently. Quality must be explicitly engineered.
IEEE 7000TM strives for quality software
Just as little as quality can be tested into software, just as little can legislative ex post regulate legal, social or ethical compliance into software. Is it a value that passengers on a flight reach their destination unharmed? Is there value in keeping teens mentally healthy by watching videos and pictures of influencers? Is truth a value that social networks violate? Values in digitization go beyond security, safety, or privacy. Values, value qualities and value dispositions, including reason, health, humility, respect and many, many more must already be taken into account at the very early software design process. For such value-by-design, the new IEEE 7000TM standard offers both a structured process and a description of the outcomes to which the individual process steps must lead.
From theory to practice: Case study "Lernsieg App"
Eliciting and formulating values on the basis of three different ethics theories was a task for the IEEE 7000TM pioneers who met from 16.-18. February 2022 in Vienna for a three-day training session. The teacher rating app “Lernsieg” from Austria served as case study – according to the IEEE 7000TM taxonomy the “System of Interest” (SOI) – which was not only exposed to more than 40 lawsuits, but in December 2021 faced a ban rendered by the Higher Regional Court of Vienna due to its abuse potential of pupils’ feedback. The pioneers were asked: Would such judgement have been avoidable if Lernsieg had practiced value-based engineering?
IEEE 7000TM creates the profession of a Value Lead
During the training, it became clear: A Value Lead who is able to integrate philosophy and technology has a professional advantage. According to the co-chair of the standardization committee, Prof. Sarah Spiekermann from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, philosophers, literary scholars, but also lawyers with a technical understanding are suitable candidates for filling the new job description of a Value Lead. Linguistic expression is a key skill, including the knowledge of philosophical vocabulary to formulate precisely which values must be translated into technical software features following a number of steps as defined by IEEE 7000TM.
At a stakeholder process, values are being collected in the light of three ethical theories. The Value Lead moderates this process, guiding the stakeholders through the three theories. "The Value Lead needs to be sufficiently trained to execute this task, which is why a retreat that deals with philosophy shall also be part of the training of the Value Lead," explains Prof. Spiekermann.
Once the values have been collected, the Value Lead is supposed to consolidate them and compare them with the current legal situation. "The Value Lead must always be up to date with regard to the actual and planned regulation of digital offerings," emphasizes Spiekermann. Only then value clusters are being presented again to the stakeholders for the sake of prioritization. On a note: For prioritization, the mission of a company is being considered first. This is an important takeaway – value-based design is by no means context-free, but always related to a defined system, its suppliers, its operational context and the mission of the company. Consequently, one and the same technology can emerge very differently, depending on its context, concept of operations and prioritization.
The training’s third day was coined by the understanding how values become ethical value requirements (EVR) and then system features, which can be implemented by software engineers in an agile development process either as an epic or story. As it turned out, the ability for strategic product management and a good understanding of technology are of great advantage for a Value Lead. With foresight, the pioneers looked at the question of AI, which is expected to be regulated by the EU's Regulatory framework proposal on artificial intelligence. AI becomes the ultimate role model for risk-weighted design decisions in software development, since the EU draft draft regulation suggests: (AI-based) software with unacceptable risks should be banned. The proposal, however, does not define what such risks would be. It limits itself to a list of some contexts in which AI can be used and classifies them as inacceptable, high or medium risk. But exactly this is where IEEE 7000TM provides defined instructions for evaluating risks and preventing them from occurring by forcing clever design decisions.
IEEE 7000TM certification probably possible from 2023 on
Until end of 2022, the IEEE aims to define how a certification body can work for the 7000’s certification. Until then, 21strategies will document value-based engineering for the AI-based system "GhostPlay", an innovation undertaking by dtec.bw and project sponsor Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, and implement its results. dtec’s presumed benefit: IEEE 7000TM prevents ethics washing because certain system functionalities can be directly traced back to the values as stated by stakeholders. For 21strategies and their partner firms, the use of IEEE 7000TM is elsewhere beneficial, because the least outcome of value-based engineering is higher software quality.