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4 Stages to Ethical Machine Design

April 7, 2018
Does your company have the tools for ethical development of new products?

Today’s designers needn’t ask the question, “will machines think?” Instead, they should ask, “how will machines compute so designers can best understand the algorithmis and processes that comprise their “thoughts?” Engineers, programmers, and design experts are all invested in ensuring excellence in the technical proficiency of thinking machines. But, users are not interested in machines that are designed to be strictly technical in their intellect. Today’s consumers and the tech-ethics savvy consumers of tomorrow will also want emotional and ethical intelligence in the machines that will be important parts of their daily lives.

Consumer’s desires for ethical machines will create promising avenues for design teams to take creative turns with their hardware and software designs. But, where should teams start in order to confront the task of creating ethical designs? What product development tools exist for designers to use to put ethics into their machines?

Value-sensitive design methodology, also referred to as value aligned design methodologies, is one tool that design teams can use to organize their efforts into iterative stages of value inquiry for product design. Value-sensitive design is a holistic approach to design that incorporates intuitive and empirical, and qualitative and quantitative methods into a path of team-based design reasoning.

Within the process, team members and stakeholders to the product design are consulted for their views, which are in turn examined and incorporated into any one of the four stages of values-sensitive design.

  • Value discovery
  • Value conceptualization
  • Empirical value investigation
  • Technical value investigation

(Spiekerman 2015, p. 168)

These four stages are iterative and interactive, with findings from one level incorporated and fed back into subsequent levels.

Image courtesy of Thinkstock

The Stages

The first stage is the value discovery process. Value discovery is a process that is already well known to design teams. You may already be engaged in value discovery activities, whether in brainstorming sessions, project story-boarding, or project management scrums. Value discovery can also take the form of a cost benefit analysis or harm benefit identification. Regardless of whether teams specify values they intend to imbue in their products beforehand, or allow them to emerge through conversation and discussion, the values discovery process sets the starting vocabulary for value discussion surrounding the product being developed.

The second stage, value conceptualization, is identifying the values that teams consider to be priorities. Setting value priorities entails grappling with:

  • The meaning of value terms;
  • Addressing the tensions that exist between technical specifications;
  • Leadership goals and team objectives; and
  • Working through component integration.

This step is critical for identifying value priorities for the remainder of the design and, later, manufacturing process. While stages one and two involve substantial deliberation, the values-sensitive design methodology is more than the roadmap for hosting a hypothetical, philosophical debate.

The third stage of values sensitive design organizes empirical value investigation of end-users, designers, and company stakeholders’ positions on key design proposals. The third stage encourages stakeholder conversations that elicit information to answer value questions addressing the most technologically sophisticated and challenging designs.

The fourth stage, technical value investigation, encourages design teams to explicitly weigh whether various design specifications meet value priorities. The objective of the fourth stage is to identify what design best meets the specification of the highest principles specified in the earlier stages.

Getting Started

How is values by design put into practice for machine design? Complex and “smart” machines are special cases of the whole category of machines which already help us to achieve our values, and exploring options for conventional values sensitive machine design may help readers to best understand the values sensitive methodology.

Injection molding is a process that expedites manufacturing of a dizzying array of products. In this brief section, I will show how values sensitive methodology might help injection molding equipment manufacturers incorporate high level values, like well-being, into their products.

What are some candidate values to help start the design process? Some IEEE initiatives suggest that the chief value against which design costs and benefits should be judged is human well-being. The challenge to build for well-being is a goal encouraged by other global standards agencies and trend-setting organizations, such as the Better Life Index or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Multiple resources are available to guide the discussions that product development groups could have as they navitage the challenge of incorporating well-being in to design. While still in development, The IEEE P7010 Wellbeing Metrics Standard for Ethical Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems is explicitly working to identity how existing well-being metrics can guide the development of technology design for autonomous and intelligent systems.

Example of Designing for Well-being

In this example, the first stage is to uncover or discover the specific values that a good injection molder must meet if they wish to design for well-being. Manufacture of injection molding machines requires that machine designers take into consideration high variability in end-products made, as well as wide variability in skillful use among end users. Meeting specifications that address both values of high product throughput with maximum efficiency and user ease and safety is a values-laden design challenge. And, both resource maximization and user safety and user satisfaction are part of a well-being perspective in manufacturing.

The second stage of values sensitive design is to identify the priority of values to be imbued into the final product. The value conflict of maximizing effiency and maximizing user ease and safety must be resolved to determine optimum specification for a new molder. The conversation about the priority of particular values entails consideration of potential stakeholders to the process.

However, it is within the third stage of design, where end users, marketers, designers, and others are invited to give supporting evidence for their claims on the importance of safety versus efficiency in the final design. Invitations to potential users to test prototypes is an example of one way to gather evidence for the importance of reconsidering priority of values in the final design. Also, in the process of inviting stakeholders to discuss and to test a new molding machine, it may emerge that additional values emerge as priorities, such as interoperability with other components. As new priorities for values emerge in this proces, there should be renewed conversations about how these can be incorporated into the final design.

The fourth stage of values-sensitive design requires teams to compare feasible product specifications with ideal values. In the example given, a decision to design interchangeable components would trade off some safety elements, though it may improve interoperability and throughput. Final design choices such as this would evoke the chosen elements of well-being favored by the design team and overall corporate culture.


Testing and validating machines for their ethical intelligence and fulfillment of consumers ethical values will present design, compliance, and marketing teams with new challenges as products arrive on shelves and are tested in the many places and ways that consumers will invariably use them. Confronting these challenges will present the next horizon of design competence for machine intelligence.

Determining which values to “bake into” the design of new products will invite design teams to take avenues of discussion that they may not be comfortable with. As ethics discussions are rarely comfortable, it is an important element of values-sensitive machine design to give teams resources from which they can start their conversations. Conversations about well-being and human flourishing taking place at the global, national, and corporate level will ultimately provide the up-to-the-moment resources necessary for design teams to refer to as they leverage their competitive edge.

Sara Mattingly-Jordan is a member of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems and is assistant professor of Public Administration in the Center for Public Administration & Policy at Virginia Tech.

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