Technology and ethics may seem to have about as much to do with each other these days as, well, business and ethics. But just as the business leaders have learned, the hard way, that ethics count, so too must the device-software community learn the value of ethics. Software-powered devices have simply become too important for anything less.
For example, Guidant Corp., a leading maker of heart defibrilators and a poster-boy of sorts for device software, is in trouble for what can only be called an ethical lapse. According to this June 2 Wall Street Journal article, Guidant officials continued to sell their Ventak Prizm 2 Model 1861 heart defibrillator--and allowed the device to be surgically implanted in patients--even after they discovered a rare short-circuiting malfunction that caused some of the devices to fail. As a result, Guidant is now being examined by the Food and Drug Administration.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, the Guidant affair raises a crucial point. Devices matter in ways that plain old PCs almost never do. If my desktop machine crashes, that's inconvenient, but not much more. In fact, I've come to expect my PC to periodically fail. But I expect (whether reasonably or not) the software-powered devices in my life to run flawlessly: The braking system in my car...the display on my mobile phone... the communications system in the airliner that's flying me home. If the manufacturers of these devices discovers a flaw or bug, I believe they have an ethical commitment—to me if no one else—to make those problems known, and to do whatever they can, urgently, to right the wrong. That's why device software has become a matter of ethics.