Industry must show how ethics is having an impact
We are on our fourth blog based on the eight action points raised in techUKs Digital Ethics paper (http://bit.ly/2VsrOy1). This blog focuses on the need for Industry to demonstrate how ethics is changing their business practices.
we described the current technology revolution. The debate around Digital Ethics has so far failed to capture public imagination. We presented the need for more appropriate language to enable the debate, and for a long-term campaign to engage the public: making the issues real, relevant and significant.
How has business been doing?
If political, business and community leaders want the public to engage in the debate, they need to demonstrate by their actions that they themselves are genuinely engaged.
Recent history reveals an ugly repeating pattern of ethical failures: the collapse of Enron; Volkswagen emissions scandal; Cambridge Analytica; Facebook handling of personal data, to name a just few corporate horrors. If we add the plethora of individual executive failures the list becomes depressingly long. Ethics are an issue of trust – hard won and easily lost.
Consequences of failure have varied from complete corporate destruction with collateral impact on key business partners, to multi-billion-dollar damage to balance sheets: through market capitalisation, massive corporate fines and/or lost revenue
Bad business ethics are simply extraordinarily bad business.
Is the situation improving?
In the face of public concern around aspects of the new technologies, Digital Ethics have moved up the discussion agenda. Some very good ethical frameworks are emerging. Concern is rising; as is public awareness of some of the issues – but where is the evidence that digital ethics are really making a difference to what businesses do?
Talk is cheap: actions count
The recent horrific terrorist incident in New Zealand, exposed yet another challenge. The atrocity was live-streamed by the terrorist. According to Facebook, they were only told about the live stream 29 minutes after the stream began, and 12 minutes after the feed ended. Despite their claims of prompt action, the company also reported it had removed 1.5 million videos of the attack from its platform in the 24 hours afterwards.
Live Streaming has been available on Facebook since 2016. There was always a risk that someone might seek to sensationalise criminal activity using it. Were mechanisms in place at Facebook to spot this kind of abuse? Were the shut-down mechanisms adequate? The answers appear to be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in that order. Facebook did eventually spot the problem but the live-stream ran far too long.
‘Innovate or Die’ still echoes around Silicon Valley – and all tech hubs around the world. The consequence of this relentless pursuit of the new; the disruptive, is feeble consideration of the ethical risks associated with deploying new tech-powered capabilities.
What might constitute evidence of ethical impact?
To demonstrate that ethics is having an impact, businesses need to be able to demonstrate three things:
1. Clear, practical corporate values relevant to the fast-moving world of digital innovation – evidenced across businesses. (https://doteveryone.org.uk/work/).
2. Significant consideration of ethical challenges in advance of deployment. It will take time to build a credible track-record of this. Digital Catapult’s framework would help (https://www.migarage.ai/ethics-framework/)
3. Proactive management of innovation risk– demonstrable action by business to monitor, manage and react to changing levels of ethical risk at appropriate pace.
Better education on ethics will help. Sound understanding of good ethical practice is essential. We massively value the work being done by UK House of Lords AI Select Committee, the IEEE (https://ethicsinaction.ieee.org) and techUK to name a few, but what we need now is credible action from the business community.
Until consistent action becomes clearly visible, the public will remain sceptical. Any perceived ethical failing will fundamentally undermine public trust - including new ethical risks presented by digital technologies. If business wants public engagement in the debate - then businesses have to take the lead by being wholeheartedly engaged themselves.
This is an issue of core values and conduct. Good ethics are the product of vibrant values and consistent behaviours, not of a box-checking compliance culture.