WHY do virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa have a female voices? How do we ensure technology does not absorb unconscious racial bias? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid a pedestrian in the road if that means crashing and endangering its passenger?

These are some of the moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas we have to consider in the brave new world of the 21st century as technology continues to develop and take an ever more important role in our lives. One organisation tackling these difficult issues head on is the BCS: the Chartered Institute for IT.

Founded in 1957 as the British Computer Society, with a head office at North Star in Swindon, BCS celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

When it started, computer science was just beginning – computers filled rooms and were built from glowing valves. Yet over the decades, computers have come to affect almost every aspect of our lives – how we work, live, raise our children and fall in love.

The BCS became a charity in 1966, and in 1984 was incorporated by Royal Charter. Now it oversees IT qualifications and professional certifications, organises events that bring together brings together practitioners, academics, students and businesses, and supports training for its 70,000 members around the world.

It also studies, researches and debates the impact of IT on modern society with the goal of making sure IT is good for people and good for the world.

Head of corporate communications at BCS is Adrian Oldman.

He said: “We are one of 20 engineering institutes. We award and create qualifications – everything from schools, where we help subject knowledge enhancement for teaches who want to teach computing in schools, all the way through to working with departments on AI Masters’ programmes.”

When the computer virus hit NHS hospital and GP surgery IT systems in May last year, the BCS got involved.

“We called a group together to ask how this had happened, how it had caused such devastation and what we could do to stop something like this happening again,” Adrian explained.

“The public expect their hospital to be protected from computer viruses, and they were not. We needed to step in with our partners and work with our partners.”

A president is elected to the BCS each year: “Our current president is Chris Rees, and he has as his aim an examination of the ethical application of technology, and we have been doing a lot of work around that.”

He said a computer science degree had an ethical module in the first term as it was a key element.

“We need to make sure that AI will be developed and delivered ethically and with a degree of moral certainty.”

Ethical dilemmas can arise from unconscious bias: “Someone developed an automatic soap dispenser. It turned out it worked for white-skinned people but didn’t recognise the hands of darker-skinned people. If you have a small, non-diverse workforce developing technology, these are the kinds of issues that will come up if you have a small, non-diverse team developing technology.

“We want to champion diversity in development and all aspects of technology.”

Adrian said data from the Office of National Statistics showed the proportion of women working in IT was 17 per cent.

“It’s crazy,” he said, adding that the representation across ages, ethnicity and disability were not much better when it came to the IT industry.

Thought also needs to be invested in the consequences of IT developments – such as proliferation of fake news.

“When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, he did not set out to create what Facebook became. The unintended consequence of the development of technology in this way is that some people see they can take advantage of it,” he said.

“Should we teach our children to talk to virtual assistants like Alexa like people, or should they recognise them as robots? Children who are five or six now will one day be working in jobs that do not yet exist. How do we prepare them through 12 or more years of education for that?”

The BCS has around a hundred special interest groups that discuss such issues.

“Often these are self-forming, around an issue or interest. We are asked to get involves in Government consultations.”

The BCS is working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on issues such as young people and social media, and bullying. A survey last November asking school pupils aged eight to 18 on all aspects of exposure to social networks was expected to attract four or five hundred responses but brought in 6,500 instead.

“Getting that immediate feedback, you can see the extent in the early teens of bullying and abusive behaviour. In the 16 to 18 group, they are more used to the technology and less affected by it,” he said. “To be able to feed raw data back into Government helps influence Government policy.”

The organisation is also working hard to boost the number of computer science teachers in schools, including the creation of a £28,000 bursary to support people wanting to train for a teaching qualification.

“There are graduates and career changers on the course. We can fund about 120 a year. Candidates have included an ex police officer, and investment banker, and a lot of people coming out of the IT industry, as well as graduates who want to get into teaching.”

BCS is also working on a project to help teaching in primary schools, with volunteers training teachers so interest is sparked while children are young. Encouraging people into computing professions is key for promoting social mobility, Adrian said.

The institute is also an important local employer and most of its staff live in Swindon and the surrounding area.

Employees are keen to support organisations in the town and a recent cake sale raised £233 for TWIGS community garden, in Swindon, which supports people with mental health problems by giving them an opportunity to work in nature.

For more information about BCS, visit their website www.bcs.org.