Editor’s Note: This article is part of a larger series of Q&As that originated in the future-focused UD Magazine. Additional topics discussed by College of Arts and Sciences faculty members and alumni include self-driving vehicles, dystopian views of the future in pop culture, and the ability to distinguish between real and fake news. To see these and other views of the future, please visit the Envisioning the Future website.

Industries currently “throw technologies over the wall” and wait for the consequences to accumulate. The ethical questions are changing constantly, as technologies change constantly, but clearly new products will continue to impact our lives. We can ask: Does this product make us safer? Does it threaten privacy? Will society on the whole be benefited or harmed?

Perhaps it’s not so much the questions we ask, but the people and groups who bother to ask them. A promising, multidisciplinary conversation has arisen at the intersection of engineering and philosophy known as “ethics of design.” Here, teams of experts try to anticipate problems associated with a new technology so they can design around them — or design to avoid them. Of course, we might also expect consumers to care about the ethics of new technologies, along with lawyers, insurers, health-care providers and others.

For instance, in the last few years I’ve spoken at two international conferences focused on driverless cars. Law professors, Artificial Intelligence experts, transportation planners, sociologists, philosophers and others from academia and industry discussed everything from “Can we program ethics into an automated vehicle?” to “How do we insure a vehicle when there’s not a person at the wheel?” We must have these important conversations before large-scale technological changes take hold.

Article by Tom Powers, associate professor of philosophy and director of UD’s Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy; illustration by Kailey Whitman