An Ascendant Techlash: The Rise of AI Ethics in 2019
The digital revolution to date has been widely viewed as humanity’s latest leap forward–not only in democratizing access to information (for both consumers and brands), but by enhancing convenience and safety and accelerating growth through efficiencies, cost savings and the marketplace of ideas. But as automation grows evermore ubiquitous and unintended consequences emerge, a technology backlash is ascendant. We’re just now awakening to the scale, scope and ethical implications of what we’ve created.
A pivotal year for the tech sector
The luster of Silicon Valley is wearing thin with revelations of fake news, societal manipulation, threats to public health, elections, security and beyond. We’ve witnessed a growing tide of alarming events, research and abuses sparking international discourse and corporate concerns. What are the political, social, environmental and health impacts of ubiquitous data and technology?
Personal data breaches of high-profile social networks were only the beginning. This year, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) 1 , a sweeping legislation that affects every company that processes EU citizen data, putting data protection practices (and sanctions) at the forefront of business agendas across the globe.
We also saw unprecedented fallout 2 and employee backlash 3 within tech and software giants, challenging many companies’ support of AI applications for military, law enforcement and surveillance. And that’s not to mention the movements surfacing around mental health and digital “detox.” In July, France banned smartphones in schools, the World Health Organization officially classified “gaming addiction” as a mental disorder, and enabling digital Time Well Spent became strategic priority for Google, Apple and Facebook.
The existing cultural trust erosion slid deeper and wider
For years, Edelman’s Trust Barometer has measured global trust in government, business, media and NGO institutions. In 2018, there was a record-breaking fall in trust, particularly in the United States, which saw a 37-point aggregate drop in trust across all four institutions 4 . Even more staggering, the plummet occurred against the backdrop of relative economic stability and low unemployment. Trust in search and social media platforms–leading adopters of AI–fell as well, and some 70% of people surveyed globally worry about “fake news” and false information being used as a weapon. And as we learned in the chapter The Accessible, Accountable Executive: Evolving Expectations for the C-Suite, respect is deteriorating for CEOs who remain silent on these pressing issues.
Colossal data and the rise of AI accelerates innovation
While trust is eroding, data is exploding. As technologists have been saying for the last five years, it continues to be true that we have created more data over the previous two years than in all of human history combined. Falling costs of computers and rising access to devices and networked services are causing the digital universe to double in size every 12 months. By 2020, it is expected to reach some 44 zetabytes––that would be more bytes in the digital universe than stars in the sky.
This astronomical growth of data has a direct relationship with the emergence of AI for two primary reasons. First, today’s machine learning models are data-hungry, requiring massive amounts of training data and statistically significant sample sizes of ontologies and scenarios to achieve performance viable for commercial environments. Second, businesses believe AI can accelerate multi-function programs and related ROI. The sheer volume, variety and velocity of data generated every day renders learning (from that data) a principal business objective in order to justify investment. Some 80% of businesses will invest in AI in the next 12 months, according to a recent study by Teradata 6 , which also found that product and CX innovation are the top two areas of AI investment.
The global AI “arms race”
In the last year alone, the European commission announced more than a billion and a half euro investment in AI 7 , never mind tens of billions in private investment across multiple EU countries. This pales compared to China’s $150B AI investment strategy 8 in research spending and military applications. In the United States, the government has yet to publish a formal AI strategy, but private investment is booming to the tune of hundreds of billions. Strategies and investments are a key metric to watch when it comes to AI. They factor into geopolitical calculations, private-public sector partnerships, military and economic alliances, and speed of developing some of the most powerful tools the world has ever known.
To date, enterprise preparation for AI has centered almost exclusively on data prep and data science talent. But enterprises that fail to ready the broader organization–chiefly, people, processes and principles–don’t just stunt their capacity for good AI. They risk sunk investment, jeopardize employee trust and face brand retaliation–or worse.
The very notion of AI (understanding and reproducing human cognition) forces us to hold a mirror up and re-evaluate the biases and assumptions embedded in the data we use to train AI models. It forces us to consider implications of new digital interfaces like voice and facial recognition and reconsider structures for accountability when we can’t solicit explanations from machines. It forces the arbiters of AI, enterprises in particular, to ask an untold number of societal questions they have yet to confront.
2019 marks the year a new business competency is born: a formal approach to digital ethics.
For years, brands have been leaning into more responsible practices and purpose-driven campaigns, particularly as consumer preferences prioritize sustainable products and services. But this emerging brand charter is bigger than marketing or CSR programs.
“Business is now a platform for change,” declared Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, as he called for Inclusive Capitalism 9 at this year’s Dreamforce event. Apple’s Tim Cook recently appealed for regulation of the “data industrial complex” as “our own information…is being weaponized against us with military efficiency.” Patagonia sued the Trump administration over environmental protection. Microsoft will require its suppliers to offer paid parental leave 11 beyond the required statutory minimum. These initiatives may be divisive, even costly, but they demonstrate brands’ commitments to their values. As AI infuses business, brands must develop a new ethics function with the objective of shifting from mere risk avoidance to forward-thinking planning and counter-efforts across key areas (e.g., design, data protection, guidelines and processes and training). Risk avoidance includes increasing accessibility and transparency of senior business leaders as well (namely on social media), as people increasingly hold them accountable for sound ethical principles.
Some are hiring C-suite Ethics Officers 12 , others are joining industry coalitions (such as The Partnership on AI), hiring advisory boards or developing interdepartmental working groups. It’s essential to develop core roles and organizational structures for identifying risks and legal issues, guiding critical discussions, supporting process development, analyzing scenarios across emerging technologies and instituting programs that combat inauthenticity and scale innovation with positive impact.
- What’s at stake? Analyze scenarios across AI-enabled emerging technologies; identify risks and legal issues align with values, product and partner strategies.
- What would be the result? Think through ethical issues and implications of products/services, including conflicts between professed values and underlying business model.
- How can we support responsible stewardship? Develop ethical guidelines for companies, even a code of ethics, structures for ecosystem collaboration, adoption of standards and governance.
- How can we support day-to-day decision-making and accountability? Institute programs such as training courses; design thinking groups and scenario or social systems analyses or audits; assess tools and resources for ongoing management.
- What skills are we missing? Expand ethical awareness by diversifying teams. In medicine, for example, ethics teams don’t only include doctors and lawyers, but educators, philosophers, designers, psychologists, specialized agencies, sociologists and artists.
Now more than ever, brands have a unique role and opportunity not just in extending AI’s practical and commercial applications, but in cultivating the responsible and ethical use of it. Remember: Your brand’s actions today shape your customers’ expectations tomorrow.
1 “General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): What you need to know to stay compliant.” CSO. April 2018. Source: https://www.csoonline.com/article/3202771/data-protection/general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr-requirements-deadlines-and-facts.html
2 “Over 150,000 People Tell Amazon: Stop Selling Facial Recognition Tech to Police.” ACLU. June 2018. Source: https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/over-150000-people-tell-amazon-stop-selling-facial
3 “Thousands of Google employees asked CEO Sundar Pichai to stop providing AI tech for the US military’s drones.” Business Insider. April 2018. Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/google-employees-letter-urges-sundar-pichai-end-pentagon-ai-contract-2018-4
4 “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.” Edelman. January 2018. Source: https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer
5 “The Exponential Growth of Data.” Inside Big Data. February 2017. Source: https://insidebigdata.com/2017/02/16/the-exponential-growth-of-data/
6 “State of Artificial Intelligence for Enterprises.” Teradata. July 2017. Source: http://assets.teradata.com/resourceCenter/downloads/AnalystReports/Teradata_Report_AI.pdf
7 “EU to invest 1.5 billion euros in AI to catch up with US, Asia.” Reuters. April 2018. Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-artificialintelligence/eu-to-invest-1-5-billion-euros-in-ai-to-catch-up-with-us-asia-idUSKBN1HW1WL
8 “Beijing Wants A.I. to Be Made in China by 2030.” The New York Times. July 2017. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/business/china-artificial-intelligence.html
9 “Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff on the fourth industrial revolution and ‘inclusive capitalism.” Marketing Interactive. September 2018. Source: https://www.marketing-interactive.com/salesforce-ceo-marc-benioff-on-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-and-inclusive-capitalism/
10 “Apple’s Tim Cook warns of threat from growing data industrial complex.” Fast Company. October 2018. Source: https://www.fastcompany.com/90256013/apples-tim-cook-warns-of-threat-from-growing-data-industrial-complex
11 “Paid parental leave matters.” Microsoft. August 2018. Source: https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2018/08/30/paid-parental-leave-matters/
12 “Uber’s latest hire is another sign the company is trying to grow up.” Business Insider. July 2018. Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/uber-hired-first-compliance-ethics-officer-2018-7
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