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Companies ‘lack ethical guidelines’ for the use of emerging tech – study

Artificial intelligence, extended reality and automation are among the tech considered high priority for ethical guidelines.

By Ryan Morrison

Companies lack a coherent framework for the ethical implementation and use of emerging technologies, a new study by Deloitte has discovered. Tech leaders were responding to a survey exploring a range of technologies including natural language processing, distributed ledger technology, extended reality and automation.

Ethical guidelines in tech
Companies need to have an ethical framework designed with employees for emerging technology, Deloitte says. (Photo by solarseven/Shutterstock)

The findings come from ‘State of Ethics and Trust in Technology’, a new report from Deloitte involving interviews with 19 leading executives as well as a survey of 1,800 business and technical professionals involved in developing, consuming or managing emerging technologies. It comes as governments and civil society groups mull the need for ethical guidelines in tech like AI, quantum computing and automation.

Those responding were asked for views on which emerging technologies presented both the most potential for social harm, as well as social good. It revealed that 41% said cognitive technologies presented the highest ethical risk. This includes natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), robotics, and image recognition, among other forms of AI. These technologies are designed to learn, interpret, and respond to data in order to automate tasks and make decisions.

At the other end of the scale, the emerging technologies seen as having the most potential for social good were also cognitive technologies at 33%, followed by extended reality at 14% of respondents, but only with an appropriate ethical framework in place.

This could come with government or independent support and would allow a company to maximise the value of data while reducing the risk of misuse. Recently the Alan Turing Institute launched the UK’s AI Standards Hub, designed to bring together best practice in artificial intelligence and form a set of standards that can be used throughout the industry. It was launched in consultation with rights groups.

“We don’t want to hold back AI or hold up the technology, we just want to take a responsible approach to it including its impact on work and good work,” said Anna Thomas, director Institute for the Future of Work during a panel event at the launch of the hub. “You don’t have to wait for the standards, you just ensure you are aware of new standards being developed.”

Nearly two-thirds of the leaders surveyed for the study said leading practices are shared across their organisations to identify potential ethical issues from a new technology but only a third of those worked with other commercial organisations to review those ethical concerns with an external perspective. Only 22% currently partner with government or official agencies on ethical concerns, but the majority said government should play a much larger role in setting emerging tech standards and guidelines.

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Deloitte says there are a number of “core principles” that govern the ethics of emerging technology including ensuring it is safe and secure, private, responsible, robust and reliable, transparent and explainable, accountable, fair and impartial.

Responsible use of technology

The leaders responding to the survey were asked to rank each of these principles based on how important it was to them as an individual and to their organisation. There were some discrepancies between organisational and individual viewpoints, notably on robustness and reliability of the technology, with individuals viewing it as more important.

Organisations cared more about the “responsible” nature of emerging technology than individuals, but both were aligned, and agreed on the most important aspect – safety and security.

One of the main takeaways, according to Deloitte, is that it is essential for companies and employees to be on the same page when it comes to ethical principles, requiring a clear framework for everyone to follow when deploying emerging technology.

To help ensure that these principles are adopted, companies and employees should co-create them in an open and flexible manner, the authors declared. Additionally, companies need to recognise when new principles emerge and adjust their own policies as needed. This shows that they are listening and responding to the changing landscape.

As technology continues to evolve, companies must think critically about how to ensure ethical behaviour in their use of emerging technologies, including through communication with employees and regularly reviewing and updating the framework, the report claims.

There are some key steps required to achieve this ethical perspective. The report says it is vital to identify the ethical principles most relevant to the industry and company, then embed them throughout the organisation, and continue to review them as technology advances.

Companies that are designing, developing, and deploying emerging technologies have an "enormous responsibility to minimise harm", the authors wrote, but this brings with it an opportunity to maximise the positive potential of the technology - with a commitment to forge a trustworthy and ethical future.

“Emerging technologies present tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of individuals and create a more equitable society,” said Kwasi Mitchell, chief purpose officer at Deloitte and the report’s co-author. “By prioritising ethical standards, organisations can be better positioned to harness the social good created by these new technologies.”

This comes with risk though, as those downplaying the ethical issues linked to developing and using emerging technologies can lead to multiple forms of legal, reputational and organisational damage that can impact profitability and trust in the organisation, explained Beena Ammanath, managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP, adding that despite this "collaboration across business leadership and beyond demonstrates the high potential for creating such a framework and utilizing these technologies for societal good.”

Read more: UK AI Standards Hub launched by Alan Turing Institute

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