Ethics and technology during a pandemic

Ethics and technology during a pandemic

In the eighth edition of the "AI&I" vTalk, medical ethics expert Alena Buyx discussed – amongst other things – the success as well as the shortcomings of the COVID-19 tracing apps.

Professor Alena Buyx, Director of the Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine at the Technical University of Munich and Chairwoman of the German Ethics Council, joined the Vodafone Institute’s digital event series to give insights into the work of a medical ethicist during the COVID-19 pandemic. The talk was hosted by the Institute’s Managing Director Inger Paus and moderated by Professor Alexander Görlach.

Prof. Dr. Alexander Görlach and Alena Buyx talked about technology and ethics during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

When asked about the German Corona App, Buyx emphasizes how from an ethical point of view, the app is very well thought out and meets all the necessary requirements. On the one hand, she mentions how 20 years ago, such a smooth and quick creation process would not have been possible, since we have not yet had the discussions about all the ethical questions that come with technologies like this.

How to convince people to share their health data?

On the other hand, she does not deny the fact that the full potential of the app is not reached as long as users are unwilling to share more of their personal data, especially their infection status. Only if people are transparent about their information, it will be possible to track infection chains and ultimately break them. Buyx explains how this is the perfect example of a common dilemma in bioethics when decision-makers have to weigh between respecting individuals’ personal freedom and the effectiveness of implemented measures. What could solve this problem is designing the app a little less discrete, in a way that it regularly reminds users to share their data.

Another controversial aspect of the corona apps is the question if they could be used as some sort of “immunity certificate”. Buyx stresses that being able to provide reliable information about one’s health status makes sense, but that it is necessary to prevent potential discrimination that could result from this. If non-immune people lose access to, for instance, job markets or public spaces, the app would create a two-class society and further deepen the inequalities that the pandemic revealed already.

The pandemic does not justify authoritarian ruling

Professor Alena Buyx is currently a member of the World Health Organization’s expert advisory board for the development of standards for genome analysis. (Photo: German Ethics Council)

When asked about her opinion about the suitability of democratic systems to fight a pandemic like this, Buyx makes it clear that she does not see how authoritarian governments are supposed to deal with this better. Success cannot just be measured by effectiveness, it is about how people are being treated, and across the world, democratic societies are wealthier, healthier, and more educated. They may face a lot of challenges right now, from the spread of fake news to the rise of uncontrollable tech giants, but they have the potential to come out of this crisis stronger than before.

AI&I vTalk with Alena Buyx – Rewatch it on Vodafone Institute’s YouTube channel

Watch other discussions from the “AI&I” event series

The Vodafone Institute launched the AI&I“ series of events in Berlin in 2018 to create a platform for a constructive, interdisciplinary dialogue on the effects of artificial intelligence on our society and economy. To stimulate a diverse debate and inform decision-makers, we have already discussed with renowned researchers such as Vinton G. CerfPascal FinetteNuria OliverSir Martin Rees, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Audrey Tang, and Luciano Floridi.