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Ethicists were hired to save tech’s soul. Will anyone let them?

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Ethicists were hired to save tech’s soul. Will anyone let them?

Firms are adding ethical thinking to their processes, but ethical outcomes are optional.

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5 min read
3 take-aways
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In response to public backlash, the tech industry is starting to embrace ethics. 



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Technology companies are facing public backlash over their innovations’ impact on society. As a result, companies have started to hire “chief ethics officers” to help them align their products with human values. But are these efforts simply designed to regain public trust and pacify the conscience of employees, or are they the first step toward a universal code of ethics for emerging technology? Science reporter Linda Kinstler talked to company insiders to see where the industry is at. She provides a useful overview for anyone concerned about tech’s influence on society.

Take-Aways

  • An increasing number of tech companies are hiring ethics officers to align their products with human values.
  • Apple co-founder Mike Markkula is bringing ethical debates into the technology development process.
  • Efforts to infuse technology with ethics have so far produced modest results.

Summary

An increasing number of tech companies are hiring ethics officers to align their products with human values.

In 2019, Salesforce hired Paula Goldman to become its first Chief Ethical and Human Use Officer. Her vaguely defined mandate is to ensure that Saleforce’s business activities contribute to making the world a better place. Goldman’s Ethical and Humane Use team provides training to help employees consider ethical issues in the software development process and think through the intended and unintended consequences of new product features. Salesforce has updated its acceptable use policy to ban the sale of firearms on its platform and ensure that AI-generated legal decisions are reviewed by a human before going into effect.

“Other companies, responding to their own respective crises and concerns, have hired a small cadre of similar professionals — philosophers, policy experts, linguists and artists — all to make sure that when they promise not to be evil, they actually have a coherent idea of what that entails.”

Salesforce decided to hire Goldman after the company faced ongoing criticism from its own employees for the Trump administration’s use of Salesforce software in its controversial immigration policy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and other incidents served as similar wake-up calls for other tech companies to start hiring “ethics owners” aligning company activities with human values. Google, for example, has enrolled over 100 employees in ethics training seminars and maintains a regularly updated list of “responsible AI practices.”

Apple co-founder Mike Markkula is bringing ethical debates into the technology development process.

Mike Markkula, a co-founder and former chairman of Apple, assumed a pioneering role in trying to infuse ethics into technology development. In the 1980s, he came up with a set of values for Apple and went on to help found the Markkula Center f0r Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. On its website, the center offers tools and best practices to help tech developers think through the possible consequences of their creations and align them with ethical values. The center strives to make ethical principles easy to understand and apply.

Efforts to infuse technology with ethics have so far produced modest results.

The results of these ethics efforts in the tech industry have so far remained modest. Some consider these steps merely as “ethics washing” – putting a marketing spin on their activities to calm down media criticism and public calls for more government regulation. The ethical guidelines worked out by ethics officers remain voluntary. The need to chase profits usually takes priority over ethical concerns.

“In a recent survey of UK tech workers, [interim CEO of Doteveryone Catherine] Miller and her team found that 28% had seen decisions made about a technology that they believed would have a negative effect upon people or society.”

The tech industry lacks a commonly accepted ethics vocabulary. Many ethics consultants are not much more than “enthusiastic amateurs,” but good intentions alone aren’t enough for engineers to produce ethically sound products. When it comes to emerging technologies like AI, even national governments can’t agree on a universally applicable code of ethics. At present, each country seeks to infuse its own particular worldview into the process. The US government’s talk about “AI with American Values” is a case in point. Another challenge for building a universal ethics code for emerging technology is the fact that future technology and its uses are inherently unpredictable. Still, a few ethical principles seem to crystallize from the current debate, such as “transparency, justice and fairness, non-maleficence, responsibility and privacy.”

About the Author

Linda Kinstler is a freelance writer and PhD candidate in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a contributing writer at Politico Europe and the managing editor of The New Republic.

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