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Why All Companies Must Explore the Role of Ethics in Technology

Exploring the role of ethics in modern technology use

NOTE: This blog was originally posted on Forbes.  Read it here.

For most modern businesses, technology is the engine of transformative change, driving companies toward profit. No longer just inherent to explicitly tech-based conglomerates, tech fuels everything from banks and financial services to food-delivery services and traditional retail as it facilitates the rapid migration online to meet the needs of a world spending more time at home than ever before.

With this widespread adoption of technology to facilitate goods and services, the role of ethics has become increasingly prominent in the minds of both the consumers interacting with technology and the executives designing and implementing it. The savviest companies must learn to understand and embrace the nuances at the intersection between technology and human values as a fundamental building block of their digital transformation.

Understanding Ethical Responsibility

Many high-level decision-makers understand the role of ethics in technology, particularly as it relates to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics. Salesforce, for example, founded its Office of Ethical and Humane Use to help build and foster a culture of responsibility as it relates to technology use, instilling a strategic framework around product, law, policy, and ethics to ensure the humane use of technology across Salesforce’s many clouds.

Artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, must be developed with responsibility, accountability, transparency, and inclusion in mind. As the technology improves, a greater onus is placed on how it is used as well as on the checks and balances to ensure accuracy. Law enforcement surveillance, airport passenger screening, and even employment or housing decisions are now influenced by facial recognition technology, but we’ve discovered that this AI is not always accurate, and it often features racial biases.

The American Civil Liberties Union tested Amazon’s “Rekognition” facial surveillance technology and found the technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots in a criminal database. Of the twenty-eight falsely identified Congress members, results disproportionately matched people of color. In a separate study conducted by researchers from MIT and Microsoft, “Gender Shades,” three gender classification algorithms, two of which were developed by Microsoft and IBM, were found to misidentify darker-skinned females at a rate 34% higher than for lighter-skinned males.

How were these racial biases missed in the initial implementation of the technology? Who should be held accountable for such a fundamental lack of ethical consideration? There is an innate risk of unethical manipulation when it comes to AI and technology at large, and it is up to the respective company to instill and foster an ethical culture.

Implementing Ethics In Company Culture

Infusing ethics into a company culture must start from the top and work its way down into the broader infrastructure of a company. Everything starts with leadership. To that point, leadership positions must prioritize ethics, establish committees designed to check and balance the ethical nature of a company’s technology and utilize governance across the company to ensure staff is educated on the foundation of ethical digital transformation.

Nonprofit organizations are especially at risk of wading into unethical waters if the right cultural considerations are not made. Consider the line between advocacy and data manipulation, particularly as it relates to fundraising. With every donation, user data is culled and stored within databases. Without the right technology use, the data can become susceptible to unethical bias or even a breach, such as Blackbaud’s massive data breach as a result of ransomware, if data is not treated with the respect and security it deserves.

Higher education institutions, too, could run the risk of prioritizing prospective students from certain income levels when relying on predictive AI to fuel enrollment, recruitment, and admissions. Organizations, institutions, and companies alike must understand the fundamental risk in predictive technologies. They must rely on their technological savviness to transform that understanding into positive action. Ethical technology is built on trust and awareness of effective technology as well as on safely handling and considering how to respectfully operate the technology at hand.

How Leadership Shapes The Conversation Around Ethical Technology

Without quality leadership, a standard of ethics cannot be established in your business. An organization like Facebook is run by a very technologically savvy leader in Mark Zuckerberg, but a spotlight has recently shown on the company because of ethical concerns surrounding its technology and practices. According to The Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg has claimed Facebook allows all users, no matter their socioeconomic status or perceived level of political or capitalistic power, to be seen as equals and afforded the same level of access, and held to the same standards of quality control.

The same series of reports by The Wall Street Journal suggests otherwise. The reports detail favoritism to political elites, efforts to conceal the negative effects Facebook and Instagram have on many of its users (especially teenage girls), and the platform letting vitriolic hate speech, anti-vaccine content, and explicitly violent video-sharing go unchecked and unpunished by the company’s AI-powered censorship capabilities.

It is not enough to simply be technologically savvy. The savviness must carry over into ethical guidelines on which to build and propel your organization’s technology foundation. Even if your company is not explicitly a technology company, your business relies on technology, whether through customer tracking cookies on your company website or security safeguarding systems.

As your technological footprint expands, make sure to always make ethics a priority, taking time to consider the ethical ramifications a new feature, piece of software or company-wide implementation might have for your business, clients, and staff. If your company encourages trust, celebrates diversity, and is open to learning to harness new tools and utilize them with ethics in mind, our increasingly tech-centered world will be a much better place for everyone.

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