Predicting the Facebooks and Twitters of the future

Researchers will predict which new technologies could become as popular as Facebook and Twitter in a bid to tackle ethical pitfalls before they become a problem.

De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) is leading the major research project which will identify Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that are likely to emerge in the next 10 to 15 years.

New technologies bring with them huge benefits, but can have unforeseen drawbacks which often only become apparent once they are in use.

For example, Internet banking has led to phishing emails attempting to trick users into handing over account access details and the rise of social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of personal information available online.

This information can be misappropriated for identify theft or other fraudulent purposes. There have also been reports of employers using these sites in order to vet prospective employees.

The two-year project, entitled Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications (ETICA), aims to minimise such problems by identifying the technologies likely to enter common usage while they are still in their developmental stage.

Dr Bernd Stahl, Reader in Critical Research in Technology in the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at DMU, is the project coordinator.

He said: “There is a large public interest in the type of ethical issues that new technologies may raise, in ways of understanding and classifying such issues and ways of avoiding or addressing them. This project will explore emerging technologies as well as likely ethical issues and provide scientifically based recommendations for policy makers on how to address issues of ICT ethics. Some technologies and their applications, such as social network sites like Facebook or Twitter, are easily identified as areas of future ethical problems. Others are much more difficult to understand, such as quantum computing or ubiquitous sensor networks.

“Analysing the ethical issues that may result from them is a difficult but important task if we want to be proactive in developing technology that is beneficial to individuals and society,” he continued. “Quantum computers and cloud computing for example may have serious implications on computer security as they can be used for novel types of encryption. Ubiquitous sensor networks can conceivably raise new challenges to privacy and develop new capacities of surveillance.”

A network of 12 partners across Europe is involved in the project, worth €1 million, which is partly funded by money from the EU’s Framework 7 Programme.