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5 steps for making tech ethics work for your company

Here’s how to put ethics into action and ensure your efforts have an impact.

by Ann Skeet and Brian Green

Accelerating AI capabilities underscore the need for ethics frameworks to help guide the design and development of all technologies. Here’s how to put ethics into action and ensure your efforts have an impact.

Generative AI breakthroughs over the past year have crystalized a significant issue that IT leaders have long been aware of but few have addressed programmatically: tech ethics.

And the stakes are beginning to mount. Of 119 CEOs polled at the Yale CEO Summit this summer, 42% said they believe AI has the potential to destroy humanity within the next decade. Indeed, a report released by authors from Carnegie Mellon, the Center for AI Safety, and the Bosch Center for AI showed how easy it is to get around safety measures in recently released AI chatbots, causing them to generate harmful and dangerous content.

Confronted with the prospect of destroying civilization, tech leaders have proposed two paths: moratoria on development or legislative regulation. 

Moratoria are unrealistic and regulation takes time to develop. Public-private partnerships necessary to build technologies safely and focus on the greatest of society’s challenges require months, if not years, to take shape, in part because companies do not decide to collaborate easily or quickly.

While those approaches will certainly be necessary to ensure AI systems are designed and built to be safe, they should be augmented by careful, principled, and practical technology development by enterprises seeking to make good on the promise of the technology. People say they want technology responsibly deployed, but it seems to never work out that way, in part because ethical technology starts with the design and development of technologies, not just their implementation. 

From our experiences working in companies and our research, we have outlined a roadmap with stages that IT leaders can follow even before regulation is developed. From this roadmap, we offer five best practices for the development of ethical and humane technology, to provide both a set of tools for people working inside companies and the agency that people need to develop technology ethically, without waiting for regulation.

1. It's all about leadership

Stage one of our roadmap focuses on technology ethics leadership discernment and direction. We call for a commitment from the senior leadership of organizations to develop tech ethics literacy and dedicate resources to the development of responsible technology. Do company leaders know the best ethical practices in technology?

We recommend the appointment of a technology ethics champion to drive the necessary changes through organizations. This person leads the development of a technology ethics statement, built around an anchoring principle, and interacts candidly with an organization’s leadership to be sure they have basic technology ethics literacy and a commitment to building a culture for ethics before asking the rest of the organization to embark on the journey.

2. What’s not about leadership is about culture

We know from our research that certain conditions must be present for ethics to take hold throughout organizations. The second best practice is to conduct a baseline assessment of the organization’s culture and management practices to understand where the organization is starting from.  

Checking for those conditions that encourage the use of ethics is one aspect of this stage. Another is reviewing an organization’s product development practices to determine whether ethical requirements are considered in the design phase, whether ethical design principles are used currently, what types of user education and agreements exist, and what employee development practices are in place. 

3. Adopt a holistic approach to direction setting

There is a groundswell of interest in technology governance frameworks and we believe each company needs to have one of their own; it sets the direction for the company’s responsible technology design, development, and deployment. A holistic framework considers not only the technology being developed, but the organization creating it. 

We identified four layers of principles that help organizations move from the most abstract ethical commitment to the most concrete, practical, and action-oriented principles. These layers of principles — anchoring, guiding, specifying, and action — are designed to facilitate policy and product decisions in alignment with an organization’s values. Even though we suggest a set of principles in our book, a company can use the set of principles most appropriate for their strategy and organizational maturity.

The important aspect of this practice is that companies recognize they cannot simply state lofty principles and believe their work is done. They must define the actions that will support principles.  

4. Bake ethics in

Ethics must be embedded in organizational practices for it to be used with any regularity and consistency. In our roadmap’s fourth stage, we address both the way to develop the mindset and culture needed for using ethics and the product life cycle management processes for developing responsible technology. Now the organization is working on the things it learned in its stage-two baseline assessments through the lens of the framework it has developed in stage three.

If conditions that encourage the use of ethics are found lacking, for example, they are developed as part of this fourth best practice. Job descriptions and performance reviews are updated to reflect the responsible technology framework now being used. If stakeholder ethical value requirements have not yet been defined, they are added to the company’s product or service development cycle. Technical training is conducted and ethical values become part of standard operational reviews. Company policies around technology usage and user agreements are developed.  

The responsible technology framework is now used in the organization to weave ethical decision-making into everything the organization is doing. The organization’s technology ethics statement is now guiding management practices, and the company’s ethical tech leader is shepherding the development of new policies to use the guiding principles in everyday decision-making.

5. Use systemic measures and practices

The roadmap’s fifth stage is building out the organizational practices that will keep the company on a path of continuous improvement. The tasks in this phase become evergreen, happening annually and involve the assurance that the developed framework and policies are in place and being used and the communications surrounding the framework’s adoption to both internal and external audiences is happening. Assessment in this phase should show progress from the initial assessments conducted in the second stage and progress in each year.

What we have described here is, perhaps, not as sexy as the technology itself. But it is a path necessary to follow to build sustainable practices for bringing new technologies, with all their inherent risks, online. These practices require businesspeople to consider not just the technology being created, but the organization where the work is being done. The journey might appear to take longer than a quick, spontaneous trip.  But the chances of getting lost are greatly reduced with the right roadmap in hand.

by Ann Skeet and Brian Green

Ann Skeet and Brian Green are authors of Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap (The ITEC Handbook) and colleagues at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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