Celebrating Human Rights Day: new CEO blog

Human rights in an age of technology

A new blog from CEO Dr Donald Macaskill to commemorate Human Rights Day – 10th December 2018.

Every day you open the newspaper there seems to be a new story of technological invention. We are well and truly in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the pace of technological change is breath taking. The world of Artificial Intelligence can seem remote and scary – the realm of Hollywood cinema or science fiction. But the future is in many senses already happening. As Christmas beckons there will be a rush to buy the latest smart technology whether that’s a smart toaster or microwave, TV or radio, lighting system or security devices. It is anticipated that home robots will be one of the best-selling high-end gifts this year.

From the phones we carry which can change our heating as we sit in the traffic jam on the way home to the heart devices we wear on our wrists which act as a deterrent for that extra mince pie – we are surrounded by a world full of smart technology.

All well and good. It would be foolish to try and resist the tide of progress which will make human life better, prevent health incidents and give people more control and independence. But should there be limits to this new age?

Today is Human Rights Day where we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the 10th anniversary of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. The Declaration arose from a desire to never again witness the obscene inhumanity which had led to millions of people being killed in a war that had scarred the globe. It was never a set of utopian statements but a set of practical standards by which humanity should seek to live and conduct itself, by which the nations of the world would co-exist in peace. It is all about what it means to be human.

I will be joining many others in the Scottish Parliament today to acknowledge and celebrate both these events. I am sure the event and the debates and discussions will highlight what has been achieved but will also point us to the work that still needs to be done. I hope there will be a sense that human rights are the concern of all and not just a minority with a specialist interest. The challenge is increasingly to make human rights part and parcel of ordinary discourse, debate and priority especially in a context like Scotland where the challenge to basic human rights does not always appear so visible.

For the world does not stand still and as we celebrate human rights today we need to consider the challenges which are affecting our communities now. For me the biggest challenge to the embedding of the principles of human rights in Scotland is increasingly the role of technology. So what do human rights have to say to the use of technology?

In my work I see smart devices being used to positively predict the likelihood of someone falling and fracturing their bones, or to identify the risk of de-hydration and help people remain safely in their own homes if they are living with dementia. So there is much to be celebrating. But there are also dangers.

Scottish local authorities and Integrated Joint Boards are increasingly making decisions to replace human presence and support with technological solutions. There might be nothing wrong with that but we need to be clear why we are doing this and that it isn’t just because it’s a cheaper solution. Where is all the data which is being produced by the plethora of devices being installed in the homes of the elderly going? What is Alexa and her friends doing with your conversations? Does the citizen have access to their personal data?

Increasingly robots are being used in care homes across the world. Over 80% of care homes in Japan have at least one robot.  There is virtually nothing a care worker can do which a ‘care-bot’ cannot do. They are reliable devices, increase efficiency and reduce cost. But is that enough?

Yes a care-bot can care for me, it can help me to reminiscence and keep me independent. But can I feel the warmth of human touch through its metal? Do I want a machine to be my companion in my later days and in my last hours? Can it understand my fear and soothe my distress?

What are the limits of the new technologies? Do we want the care of some of the most vulnerable citizens to be undertaken by a machine because it is cheap? Are we developing a double standard which would frown at babies being cared for by a robot but would find it acceptable to sue robotics to care for the elderly? Is there a human right to have human care?

If human rights are to frame our society for the decades ahead then we need to start creating a set of principles around technology and its use in Scotland. The time has come as we move deeper into the technological age for us to create an ethical and human rights based framework so that the design, development and use of technology is advancing of human society and community rather than having the effect of diminishing it.

So that is why Scottish Care is calling for the creation of a Human Rights Charter for Technology and a Scottish Centre for Human Rights and Ethics in Technology.

Life is too important to be left to the machines.  Human rights need to speak to a technological age or they will increasingly become irrelevant.

Dr Donald Macaskill

@drdmacaskill

#HumanRightsDay

See a fuller exposition of this blog in ‘TechRights: Human rights, Technology and Social Care’:

https://www.scottishcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Tech-Rights-Booklet-PROOF.pdf

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