At a recent dinner with an MIT professor and her daughter, our conversation turned to the rising play of ethics in technology. The contention was that soon every business will have a Chief Ethics Officer, much like a CIO, a CDO or a CMO. Technology is rapidly infringing upon, or should I say ruthlessly trampling all over, areas of human sociology that had previously remained in the confines of philosophical treatise and market square discussions.
The dilemmas are many. Who would you blame for an accident caused by a self-driven cab that kills a human being – the car manufacturer, the software developer, the car sharing company that books the profits, or the driver who looked away when he should have been looking at the road? Was it a complete technological failure or the failure to understand human psyche – that any human supervisor of automated systems would soon lose focus and become disengaged? Should this one accident put a stop to all research on driver-less cars – a movement that is slated to save several lives in the future as automated cars lead to fewer accidents.
As more automation takes over, insurance algorithms will shift from driver history to the OEM brand, its technology platforms and cyber security vulnerability. While driver-less cars will reduce alcohol and bad driving induced accidents, if sabotaged the consequences will be much larger. Who will own the ultimate liability?
Similarly, who is the rightful owner of the data I generate? If social media platforms provide me with free services, should I let them use my data for profit? The EU doesn’t think so. We are helping several of our clients become and stay GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliant – so that citizens can reclaim the right to their data and the right to be forgotten. This throws up an interesting dilemma for blockchain – what if you put someone’s financial or criminal history on an immutable blockchain and they exercise the right to delete this history (say in the case of juveniles who have made a fresh start)? How do you create a historical change on something that is fundamentally immutable? We are solving this by building identity management systems using modules that can disconnect the sovereign identity from the underlying transactions. That way when a citizen asks to be forgotten, we can disconnect her identity for any and all underlying transactions while keeping the blockchain intact.
There are also bigger questions that large scale automation brings to the fore – what will the new jobless generation do when everything is automated and the machines have taken over? We have delivered RPA implementations to clients that can potentially reduce headcount by 30-40%. The counter argument is that automation does not impact all jobs equally – while it eliminates some jobs (fewer travel agents and IT support staff), it can lead to significant demand increase due to lowered prices (say in manufactured products), thereby protecting jobs. Digital is also enabling more entrepreneurship among this displaced generation – many of the ‘to-be call center executives’ are now running their own car sharing services, delivery restaurants, and myriad other Facebook enabled stores. Automation is freeing our time to do what we really want, provided we are able to rapidly re-skill.
AI throws up the most ethical conundrums – did you hear about the murder case in Arkansas where recordings from Amazon Echo were turned into evidence? Or the fact that we basically live in a social bubble – where sophisticated algorithms continue to feed our timelines with news and stories that fit our previous likes and our perceived personality type. We are completely cut off from reality as our news feed continues to reinforce our existing biases and world views. And the fact that Google knows exactly where I am as I type this, what dinner I ordered, what time I ate it and who are the friends most likely to hit the Like or Share button on this post.
Apparently, there are Universities offering courses in Ethical Technology – we should sign our kids up. Chief Ethics Officer sounds almost as good as CEO.