Ethics and Social Values

Richard Epstein, The Case of the Killer Robot, Wiley, 1997

Deborah Johnson, Helen Nissenbaum, Computers, Ethics, & Social Values, Prentice Hall, 1995

Peter G. Neumann, Computer Related Risks , Addison-Wesley, 1995


Computability tells us what we can't do. Ethics tells us what we should not do (and what we should). Consider the following situation.

A Case for Discussion--the PGD

There are currently many converging technologies. One of these is wireless communication. You have certainly heard of beepers and cellular phones. One aspect of this is the so-called PIM, or Personal Information Manager. Another technology is that of digital money, which can take many forms. One of the forms is the credit card. Another that is about to appear is digital cash, which shares with ordinary cash the ability to make anonymous transactions. Credit card transactions are not anonymous, since the bank keeps a record of both the buyer and the seller.

It will soon be possible to create a PGD, or Personal Gambling Device. Such a small electronic device could use wireless communication to enable instant gambling of whatever kind the user wanted and the developer enabled; perhaps playing blackjack for money while riding the subway. Users could buy cash cards, similar to pre-paid phone cards, with which to enable the device. Winnings could be added to the card via the wireless network, and losses could be deducted. The user could cash in any value in the card at any time.

There are two aspects we need to consider beyond the technical ones. The first is the legality of such a device. Most States in the USA, and the nation itself strictly regulate gambling. The device would probably be illegal. But suppose that you created it and licensed it to your home State. The State itself could then sell the devices and become the other gambling partner in each transaction. Then it would not be illegal. You could get a commission on the sale of each device, or even better, a commission on each gambling transaction. Any proceeds that the State earned could be used for some good purpose, such as is now done with many State lotteries, which are used to fund education.

But what of the morality? Remember that gambling addiction is a serious problem for some people. Should you, or the State, make it possible for some people to overindulge in this "vice"? What if a parent gambled and lost all. This would affect his or her dependents. Would the State be responsible for the consequences? Would you be? Discuss the morality of creating such a device. How would this be different if the transactions were not anonymous, but could be identified with an individual. Would this be better or worse?