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Take It From a Futurist: How Chief Ethics Officers Should Approach AI Issues

Cornerstone Editors

In the near future, a new crop of leaders is coming to the C-Suite. Though the acronym will be familiar, the role of the CEO will soon be wildly reimagined by the era of artificial intelligence. Chief Ethics Officers, the new CEOs, will soon need to take over as artificial intelligence at work introduces AI ethics issues including growing unemployment, unconscious bias in hiring and controversial employee or customer data usage. That's according to Amy Webb, author, quantitative futurist, professor of strategic foresight at NYU's Stern School of Business and founder of the Future Today Institute. She's at the forefront of this topic—recently recognized as one of the top five women changing the world by Forbes.

"[Many of today's] executives do not have a deep enough understanding of what AI is and how it works. For example, businesses of all sizes must collect, process and use customer data, yet most companies do not have a codified data governance policy," says Webb. To close the knowledge gap, new CEOs will require a hybrid skill-set comprised of human resources management, risk management and law prowess, diversity expertise and a deep understanding of technology. Essentially, it will be up to them to ensure that a company's core values are transparent and consistently-reflected within their workforce, while also making sure their values represent society's moral principles.

What's more, Chief Ethics Officers will need to learn how to navigate a world where a handful of companies control the frameworks, systems, clouds and tools that make artificial intelligence possible. This is the subject of Webb's new book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, where she offers bold insights into AI's power, the companies that control it and what it means for every other business in their midst.

Who Are The Big Nine?

In her book, Webb stresses that nine companies—Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Apple (G-MAFIA) in the U.S. and Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) in China—have built powerful, intelligent systems that make artificial intelligence possible and scalable, yet they don't necessarily share our motivations, desires or hopes for the future of humanity.

After a decade of interviews with AI insiders and influencers, Webb found that the future of AI ethics is moving along two developmental tracks that are often at odds with what's best for humanity. The U.S.'s AI push (G-MAFIA) is guided by market forces and consumerism, whereas China's (BAT) is to create a new world order in which its economy reigns supreme.

In the U.S., the government hasn't been able to create the networks, databases and infrastructure that it needs to operate on its own. So, the government not only needs the tech titans, but also puts external pressure on them to build practical and commercial applications for AI as quickly as possible. For example, Webb says Amazon's government cloud-computing business will likely hit $4.6 billion in 2019 as Jeff Bezos's private space company, Blue Origin, is expected to start supporting NASA and the Pentagon on various missions.

As a market-driven economy with laws and regulations in place to protect businesses, the U.S. has given Silicon Valley significant leverage. But if the Big Nine are essentially in control right now, how are business leaders supposed to make an impact or alter the trajectory? This is where the Chief Ethics Officers come in—if they're able to grasp the power dynamic that currently shapes artificial intelligence technology development and the risks associated with it, they'll be able to better protect their businesses.

Whenever new technology becomes available and prominent, the responsibility will fall on Chief Ethics Officers to ask: What are all the possible ways this new product or service could cause harm to customers, the community, company employees, shareholders and society? The hope is, according to Webb, that these CEOs will make the right call when deciding to do what's possible, or what's right.

Ethics at Work: Preventing Accidental Bias

Though we're still in the early days of artificial intelligence ethics at work, recruiters have already identified the potential pitfalls of AI tools from a hiring perspective, after all, AI-powered recruiting and hiring tools are only as objective as the humans who program them, so the introduction of human bias—even if it's unconscious or accidental—can spell big discrimination problems and ethical issues that become amplified by the scale at which AI tools operate.

Webb devotes an entire chapter of her book to this challenge because if the systems that make decisions—which data to mine and refine, who to hire, what to optimize under what circumstances—are designed, built and trained by a very small group of people, results will ultimately be biased. Relative to the global population, the group of people building AI technology is homogenous and doesn't represent all world views. In other words, machines are being trained to optimize for particular outcomes and generalizations.

"The real future of AI is hard to see without dedicating time and effort to learning more about what it is, what it isn't and how it relates to human life," Webb warns.

In the world of work, for example, no matter how automated and hands-off recruiting becomes in the future, it'll be up to leaders, be it Chief Ethics Officers or their trusted HR managers, to anticipate and identify the presence of accidental bias as well as other AI ethical issues, and then work to combat them.

Democratizing the Future

Webb's mission is to educate today's business leaders about how to predict and manage technological change—information is power, and the more informed today's leaders are, the more power is distributed fairly. In fact, Webb has been working to democratize the tools of futurists through open-source intelligence for the public and empower them to actively plan for what's next by using her frameworks and research for free from Future Today Institute's website.

"If every leader is equipped with the tools required to make better decisions, we all have a better shot at achieving our preferred futures," says Webb.

She also stresses that the Big Nine aren't the villains in this story; they're the best hope for the future. We all have the opportunity to shape our societal transformation through the decisions we make about AI today. But "we can't sit around and wait," she says, "AI is already here."

Photo: Creative Commons

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