Growing Digital Ethics in Practice: An Interactive Roadmap
Over the past three years, we’ve been observing the maturing digital ethics landscape. Starting with our first commentary The Winter of AI Discontent: Emergent Trends in Algorithmic Ethics we identified four critical reasons CXOs need to care about digital ethics, whether or not they’re responsible for implementing its specific technical complexities:
- Customers might abandon you for more-ethical providers – or you could attract a new customer base through providing ethically aligned services not offered by your competitors.
- Talent could leave you for more-ethical employers – a particularly relevant consideration for AI/ML specialists with highly sought-after skill sets, who have demonstrated both in surveys and in collective action that they are highly likely to want to work for employers who share their values.
- You might do great public harm through unintentionally exacerbating systemic inequalities – or you could be the industry leader who uses automation to expose and reduce these inequalities.
- You could lose the competitive edge of technical prowess to companies or countries with ethics that endanger your employees, your customers or the public at large – an external shock may disrupt your industry or business in ways that are harmful.
We later boiled these down to three simple but intertwined strategic drivers that impact all organizational decision-making: reputation, regulation and revenue. As businesses and public policy decisions become increasingly data-driven, understanding ethical impacts becomes just as central to business strategy as any other major driver such as organizational change or technology policy.
Our report Stemming Sinister Tides: Sustainable Digital Ethics through Evolution proposed an approach that matches different ethical schools of thought to stages of technological maturity: the more industrialized an industry is, the more codified its rules, processes and governance models will be. Conversely, for nascent technologies still in their infancy, there may be no formal regulatory landscape, but that doesn’t mean that there are no ethical responsibilities at this early stage – nor that there are no tools and frameworks available to guide teams at this stage. In the report we offer around a dozen simple tools organizations can use to manage digital ethics considerations. We worked through this toolkit using example industry use-cases from large, well-established businesses to those at the earliest nascent stages of exploring these issues. However, there are hundreds of digital ethics tools, frameworks, governance models and relevant laws and regulations out there. We barely scratched the surface of the approaches available.
Evolutionary ethics: we describe how to match specific ethical approaches to phases of technological maturity in our paper Stemming Sinister Tides: Sustainable Digital Ethics Through Evolution
In 2019 we took our toolkit off the page and put it into practice on the Ethical Digital Study Tour. Over 25 organizations in a range of sectors including biotechnology, venture capital investing, academic research, digital infrastructure and legislative bodies all gave us their perspectives on the state of play in the field of digital ethics, walking us through examples of how digital ethics decisions play out in real-world scenarios. We heard about digital service design choices that open up new opportunities for underserved markets; governance approaches designed to remove bias from organizational decision-making; cross-industry engineering standards designed to enable fair play; automated tooling for identifying areas of ethical risk within engineering workflows; and more. These findings are summarized in our report Ethical Digital Study Tour: Making Good.
One of the biggest questions that comes up over and over again for our clients is how to put principles into practice. Our clients grasp how important the concept of digital ethics is, but many of them struggle with making an actionable plan built into their operational processes. This is partly because of the fragmented nature of the space – with so many different options, it can be difficult to choose the right tool at the right time.
To help define a pathway to success, we welcomed leading lights from a range of different perspectives to give us their views on how to practically enact digital ethics in a podcast series titled Growing Digital Ethics in Practice. We heard about a range of frameworks, toolkits, emergent legislation, research recommendations and guidance from third-sector bodies. More importantly, we heard practical guiding principles for when and how to apply what models to which conundrums. Please do take the opportunity to listen to our podcast series for the wealth of insights we were fortunate to have from our guests.