Responsible Computer System Design

Beyond compliance, responsible software systems must embody many key values

Technology products are not only tools, existing in isolation and deriving their ethical valence from their users. Today's technology affects the lives of its users in deep and meaningful ways, and anyone who creates and operates a computer system must reckon with how it impacts people (users, non-users, and the public at large). Sometimes, this is a compliance imperative: data protection laws around the world aim to protect the interest of citizens in their data and other laws, such as anti-discrimination laws, provide for collective rights for protected groups. Often, though, the imperative for responsibility comes outside the law. Engineers and product designers might desire to build systems that are ethical and do not harm their users or others. A company's reputation will suffer if their products are seen as harmful or invasive or biased. Products which are unfair or do not meet users' needs will fail in the market or leave business opportunities untapped. This is especially true of data-driven technologies such as data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence as these technologies can easily reflect and amplify existing unfairness in society.

Our Values

At Rocky Coast Research, we believe that:

  • Anyone who develops or deploys computer systems must determine how to do so responsibly.
  • Technology can be used responsibly to improve the lives of users.
  • Responsible uses of technology are consistent with successful business.
  • The long-term technology market will be won by the products that best reflect human values.
  • Supporting fairness, transparency, security, and privacy does not make technology more expensive or less performant.
  • New technical solutions can improve computer system governance and responsibility without compromising other interests.

Components of Responsibility

Achieving responsibility requires being sensitive to a number of important values simultaneously. When these values must be traded off against each other or other values, it is important to do so consciously and with purpose. Using our industry leading methodology, Rocky Coast Research can help you develop programs to make these and any other considerations important to your business design goals, and can audit your existing systems and practices for consistency with desired values.


Despite popular claims regarding the objective nature of mathematics and the impartiality of technical tools, computer systems can behave in an unfair manner. Bias can even rise to the level of illegal discrimination. Certain tools may also be more or less bias-prone than others, and the choice of which approach to take to building a system can be as important as determining what the system does.

Those affected by computer systems, especially in historically marginalized communities and vulnerable populations, desire that systems treat them appropriately and fairly. Yet, there is no single definition of fairness, and in many cases mathematical definitions of fairness can be incompatible with each other. This presents a quandary to organizations fielding information technologies, as those organizations must determine what constitutes fairness (or at least how to avoid unfairness) for any particular application and must develop that requirement into a specification for their system by engaging stakeholders from many constituencies. Making fair decisions is often synonymous with making the best-informed decisions, and thus the most useful decisions, so fairness may be a business asset. Systems can also affect people who do not interact with them in ways that implicate fairness. For example, if a software product increases productivity but the gains in productivity are uneven across user groups, it may exacerbate inequality.

Fortunately, cutting-edge technologies and processes can identify and mitigate the effects of bias in computer systems. This can solve compliance problems related to discrimination while simultaneously reducing the reputational risk of products that appear to be unfair. Rocky Coast Research can help you figure out how to identify and avoid unfairness using these approaches.


Users, whether lay or expert, are also concerned about understanding the outcomes of computer systems and how they are reached. How does the system make judgements about them or others? And how can users or non-users understand what these systems are actually doing? This information asymmetry about both ends of the IT pipeline pose challenges for users to interact and interrogate such systems. While computer systems are computer programs and fully determined machines, with each action reducible to clearly understandable steps, the size and complexity of state-of-the-art systems, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, often impedes a full understanding of what systems are doing. Further, it can be extremely difficult to determine what rules a complex computer system is using to make decisions simply by examining it.

However, understandability can be an effective design goal. One approach to improving understandability focuses on producing explanations or interpretations of AI systems and their behaviors, which are short human-understandable summaries of how and why the system chose a particular behavior or gave a particular output. But on their own, explanations may or may not provide the requisite understanding. Rocky Coast Research can help you understand whether explainable technologies can solve your problems without losing performance, and can help you develop processes which complement the value of explanations to achieve true transparency.

Transparency means more than just being open about software and data. Mere disclosure is not only invasive to normal operations and intellectual property, it is often insufficient and unhelpful for the purposes for which transparency is demanded. Decisions made during the creation and deployment of computer systems matter as well, as does the ability to reproduce the actions of a system after the fact. At Rocky Coast Research, we believe that effective transparency can be achieved while preserving intellectual property and business confidentiality.


It is often not enough to know how a system makes decisions. For legal compliance and to engender trust with users, it is important to be able to justify fully how any behavior of an AI system was generated. Specifically, accountability wrestles with the question of whether the behavior of a software system was proper and intended. While transparency enables introspection into AI systems to understand how and why they have certain behaviors and to interpret certain decisions, to truly trust an AI system we must have evidence that the explanations we receive about it are correct and correspond to the system in use. This evidence supports accountability, the property that the system's behavior can be fully justified and that any action of the system can be reviewed for consistency with the system's goals.

Evidence of the correct operation of an AI system might come from something as simple as the generation and logging of metadata as the system is trained or operated. The evidence necessary to support review of any particular system will depend on that system's purpose, deployment context, and who must review the evidence (that is, the evidence convincing to the system's developer or operator is different from the evidence that is convincing to a regulator or to the public). Ideally, AI systems can be made accountable to the public by way of trustworthy audits, careful impact assessments, and ongoing interrogation.

Reliability and Safety

Systems which are responsible can be trusted to work well. That means they have been thoroughly tested and that they support an argument for why they can be trusted. In safety-critical applications such as aviation, systems are designed along with a safety case, which is a body of evidence that should convince a fair-minded but skeptical expert that the system is trustworthy. For computer systems in all applications, we believe there should be an analogous responsibility case that provides evidence of trustworthiness for both experts and average users. Without designing systems to have the ability to supply such evidence, controllers of computer systems should not be surprised when the trustworthiness of their systems is questioned.


Responsible software design and deployment requires attention to the security of the information handled by that software. A robust security program will consider when it is necessary to validate the security of a piece of software vs. isolating the effect it can have on the information it has access to. Security is increasingly a legal compliance requirement, as is the ability to identify security violations so customers can be notified. Security breaches have cost companies their reputations and have led to the resignations of several CEOs across many industries.

Additionally, data science and machine learning present new and difficult challenges for security teams. Many data analysis tools are not built with security in mind and do not support authentication of users or authorization of sensitive actions. Data-oriented systems can suffer different types of attack, such as data poisoning and adversarial interaction, which are not recognized as security issues by traditional security tools and frameworks.

The computer security experts at Rocky Coast Research can help you navigate the modern information security landscape, including helping you secure your data analysis infrastructure.


Beyond complying with data protection laws and privacy policies, privacy-sensitive design and operation is a core part of using technology responsibly and going to market effectively. Users are increasingly wary of giving up their data, for fear that it may be used in ways they do not expect but which will affect them in negative ways. And new data protection regimes such as the GDPR mandate thinking deeply about how privacy fits into all computer systems.

New data-driven technologies such as data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence naturally demand large volumes of data, creating a strong imperative for collecting data in almost every context. However, new technologies are reducing the need for such volumes of data, while other technologies are making storing and querying such volumes of data safer and more private. Rocky Coast Research can help your organization build a data governance strategy that is responsive to concerns about values, contractual promises, and legal obligations while still allowing for the development of advanced data-driven technologies.


Hardly a day goes by without a news story about the need for technology ethics. Applying ethical principles to computer systems requires thinking carefully about the underlying technology and asking detailed questions about how it relates to the world. Several frameworks exist giving principles that ethical systems should align with. However, there is often little guidance for how these ideas can actually be operationalized.

Rocky Coast Research can review your systems for ethical issues, help to mediate technical and program development with the review of professional ethicists, and help make abstract ethical principles actionable in the context of your business.

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Our Services

We work with our clients to achieve responsible software systems without compromising business imperatives. Find out why software responsibility is so important in today's technology marketplace and learn how to avoid common system design pitfalls.

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Responsibility and the GDPR

Discover why the GDPR requires responsible software and data practices and what you need to do to comply with this new law. Data science and machine learning present new challenges not captured by traditional privacy compliance approaches.

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