Public outrage can force companies to change. The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study tells us that nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. What’s more, consumers believe that brands are a more powerful force for societal change than government – a birth of ‘brand democracy’. For the technology industry in a world of big data, this need to ‘take a stand’ presents a unique set of challenges. Here’s why ethics is critical in our landscape.
A few pieces are coming into play at once for tech: belief-driven buying, regulation and employee uprisings. In part prompted by a series of high-profile data breaches, one of the consequences of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) this year is to reinforce the practice of good data governance and compels companies to rethink the ethics of data handling.
Gartner predicts this conversation of privacy will continue to evolve towards the broader topic of digital ethics, which it includes in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2019. It’s about asking not just “are we compliant?” but “are we doing the right thing?” We could see a shift from the compliance-driven organization to the ethics-driven organization.
And outrage can arrive not just from your customers, but also from within. In recent months, reporters are captivated by stories of tech workers rebelling against their employers. One of the more prominent examples of this comes from Google’s ‘Project Maven’, an AI programme for the US Pentagon which was discontinued after protests from thousands of Google employees plus a handful of resignations.
Most recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for new GDPR-like digital privacy laws and warns of modern technology leading to a ‘data-industrial complex’. In such a climate, the demand for responsible AI and big data poses both opportunities and challenges for companies looking to win trust.
The matter of ethics in AI deserves its own article, but at the very least it’s worth noting that a number of players are defining their values around responsible technology. The Project Maven story came to a close with Google CEO Sundar Pichai announcing principles to govern the company’s use of AI and its stance on weaponisation, surveillance and human rights. IBM started its Everyday Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, while Microsoft has its AI principles and SAP its seven-point plan.
Like those that bind doctors, these codes are reminiscent of ‘Hippocratic Oaths’ for developers to do no harm. However, of course, the challenge of ethics is one that an entire organization must tackle, not just its developers. Here are some basic questions around ethics that a company must be ready to answer:
a) Is the technology transparent?
b) Does it put humanity and society first?
c) Is it guarded against bias?
d) Does it have algorithmic accountability?
e) Is it secure and safe?
f) Does it respect diversity and differences?
Companies taking responsibility and forming an official code of ethics will go some way to earning public trust in AI, which the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: Technology finds is lowest in the most-developed markets, ranging from Canada to Sweden to Germany to the U.K., where trust is below 50%. Meanwhile, in the context of a global AI race, there is a certain aspiration within the EU to leapfrog with an ethically-driven AI revolution – striking the balance of allowing greater investment and effective data flow while allaying concerns over job losses and data control.
A Diverse Approach
Writing down codes of ethics on a bit of paper isn’t necessarily enough to change behaviour. As the MIT Technology Review points out, establishing ethical standards doesn’t necessarily change employee outcomes. It cites a study by North Carolina State University that found asking software engineers to read a code of ethics does nothing to change their behaviour, yet learning from past mistakes does.
To achieve digital ethics and responsible technology, the industry will need to develop a system that incorporates a mix of culture, investment, regulation and education. And by education I mean to say that tech will suffer from a lack of the humanities more than ever in the era of digital ethics. Mozilla’s head Mitchell Baker describes this well:
“But one thing that’s happened in 2018 is that we’ve looked at the platforms, and the thinking behind the platforms, and the lack of focus on impact or result. It crystallised for me that if we have Stem education without the humanities, or without ethics, or without understanding human behaviour, then we are intentionally building the next generation of technologists who have not even the framework or the education or vocabulary to think about the relationship of STEM to society or humans or life.”
In an increasingly complex environment of misinformation, data breaches and bias, digital ethics will guide the right people to ask the right questions at the right time. An ethics approach can eliminate confusion and pinpoint disagreements or conflicts of interest. Most importantly, it helps us to value the ‘other’ – other viewpoints, other people, other communities that are impacted by the global disruption of the technology industry.
This doesn’t just mean brushing up on our moral philosophy with Kant, Confucius and Aristotle. It means hiring the best people for the types of challenges that we never faced in the last two decades, from the new philosophy MA graduate to the next Chief Ethics Officer. It means using established codes such as international human rights law to help guide AI systems. It means evaluating if we have the right systems in place so we’re ready to pick up the pieces when tech moves fast and breaks things – or perhaps, to ensure it breaks fewer things.
About Edelman Digital
Edelman Digital is the digital advisory and integrated marketing arm of the world’s largest communications marketing firm. Our global staff, in over 65 offices worldwide, is built to manage the complexity of modern marketing and online reputation, using a data-driven social-first storytelling approach designed to deliver real-time business results. We believe in exploring future-forward technology to advance the stories we tell. The output of our work delivers experiences that transform culture, reputation and relationships to inspire real-world action between brands and consumers.
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