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What makes AI ethicists “the top hire companies need to succeed”?

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Preliminary remark: This article was first published on medium.com on January 19, 2019.

At the beginning of the year, KPMG published a list with the “top 5 AI hires companies need to succeed in 2019”, with the “AI ethicist” ranking among them. KPMG states:

Wir legen täglich bereitwillig unsere Daten auf den Tisch. Zum Beispiel, wenn es um unsere eigene Bequemlichkeit bei Facebook, Google, Apple oder Amazon geht. Aber wenn es um ein Gemeingut wie die öffentliche Gesundheit oder um Solidarität geht, sind wir plötzlich zurückhaltend. Das sind Widersprüche, die wir diskutieren müssen.

As ethical and social implications of AI continue to unfold, companies may need to create new jobs tasked with the critical responsibility of establishing AI frameworks that uphold company standards and codes of ethics. Initially, these roles could be fulfilled by existing leaders in an organization, but as the effects of AI fully take shape, it may need to be the responsibility of one person to ensure these guidelines are upheld.

Not surprisingly that’s good news for an ‘old business ethicist’ like me. Such lists definitely strengthen my ‘raison d’être’. Yet, when I tweeted something on this, reactions showed that not everyone shares this opinion. There is obviously no common understanding whether we need AI ethicists in the first place, and whether creating such a profile inevitably leads to “machinewashing”. Let me address these concerns below and argue what it takes to really make AI ethicists a “top hire”.

1. Do we need distinctive AI ethicists?

Not everyone seems to think so. As one follower stated:

The use of moral language triggers reflection, while avoiding moral terminology leads to ‘moral muteness’.

Using moral language (positive words like justice or integrity, or negative words like lying or cheating) tends to trigger moral thinking because the terms are linked to existing cognitive categories which contain moral content. Reasons for avoiding moral vocabulary are fear of confrontation (moral talk might provoke confrontation), efficiency considerations (moral talk might cloud issues) and hanging on to an image of power and effectiveness — there is a fear of coming across as idealistic and utopian when using moral language.

In order to be credible and effective, ethical considerations need to be made evident, and they must be singled out from mere business considerations.

Of course, in many cases (or: ideally), ethical and business considerations coincide, i.e. they lead to the same conclusion. Most popular among companies and PR experts are so-called ‘win-win’ situations, in which it pays off to be ethical. When this is the case, this should be made evident. It doesn’t ‘devalue’ the ‘seriousness’ of ethical considerations if they happen to foster business. (I have found during my time in academia that some people would tend to only acknowledge ethical aspects as such when they were limiting business).

It is ok to admit that ethics in some cases increases profits. But it is not ok to limit ethics to those cases in which it does.

That is: it needs to be acknowledged that a win-win situation between ethics and profit is not always the case, or better, must not be the condition for ethics to be taken seriously.

The litmus test for ethics is when a company refuses to do something even though it is legal and would ‘make business sense’. Undisputed cases of such behavior are arguably hard to prove in reality. Whenever a company claims they are basing their business on ethical responsibility, critics will find ways to argue that the underlying rationale is a ‘business’ one. Digging into this question is beyond the scope of this piece — it points to the age-old question whether true altruism exists — but it leads us to the next point, namely: will AI ethicists necessarily always be instrumentalized by companies as mere fig leaves to promote their business?

2. Are AI ethicists just part of a “machinewashing” scheme?

This question was raised by a second reaction to my tweet which pointed to the ‘worrisome trend’ of ‘machinewashing’:

Such a reaction is not surprising. Trying to establish ethics in any kind of corporate context is always inevitably met with ‘x-washing’ allegations from all kinds of stakeholders. A search for the term ‘greenwashing’ on my personal hard disk full of business ethics articles and documents yields 467 matches.

«-wash typically criticizes a business’s deceptive appropriation of a popular cause or trend in order to bolster its public image or benefit from the ensuing positive associations».

We can never expect absolut independence from someone on a corporate payroll. But is this a reason for companies not to hire ethicists? If they hire ethicists, they are accused of PR exercises; if they don’t, they are accused of ignoring the problem.

As I see it, AI ethics needs to start internally in a company, which uses moral language (see above), reflects on their values, anticipates and monitors the ethical impact of their products/algorithms etc. An internal AI ethicist should be given a maximum amount of trust and freedom to look into all the processes and to challenge everyone — comparable to the (admittedly short-lived) role of Paul Birch as a corporate jester at British Airways in the 1990ies “who would question authority, promote honesty, and approach problems in creative ways”, but with a slightly more serious touch and a distinctive focus on ethics. An AI ethicist makes sure that the key ethical aspects are identified and considered in the overall strategy of the company and in their daily routines and does not restrict her arguments to those that increase profit.

AI companies should step up to the challenge and show that they do ethics like they mean it.

So, in a nutshell, KPMG has identified a very relevant but also very challenging job profile in their list of “top 5 hires AI companies need to succeed”. In order to live up to this expectation, it is crucial that AI ethicists become visible representatives of companies with a tangible impact. Anything else, like keeping their heads low among the crowd of standard corporate professionals and clouding their distinctive focus by avoiding moral language, only plays into the hands of those who sense ‘machinewashing’ whenever companies use the term ethics.

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