A timely and interesting article about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI)

This paper has been written to consider how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will affect the different roles in which people operate as members of society, members of a business and as individuals. It presents an overview of the ethical issues that need to be considered and, perhaps, enshrined in regulation as we embed AI and machine learning applications into our workplaces and our personal lives. It also seeks to explore how regulators have so far responded to AI’s advances and to identify some of the ethical questions the accounting profession, business in general and individuals need to ask as we engage with these new technologies.

To date, the media focus on AI and machine learning has been characterised by two extremes. The first focuses on the tremendous benefits AI can deliver to humankind, freeing us from workplace drudgery and enabling us to actualise our higher order skills. At the other extreme are warnings of robots coming to take over our jobs and a world of “big brother” surveillance emerging where our every mood and move will be monitored and analysed, the ensuing information used to manipulate us in ways, not of our choosing.

The approach of this paper is to present a more holistic snapshot of this very fast-paced technological movement, to anticipate how these developments will affect our personal, social and workplace environments and foreshadow the ethical implications that need to be considered. To assist us in drafting this paper, we have interviewed key industry figures across Australia and New Zealand to gain their insights. Special acknowledgments go to Sarah Adam-Gedge CA, Professor Nicholas Agar, Lachlan McCalman, Antonio Papalia CA, Channa Wijesinghe FCA, and Peter Williams FCA.

We suggest that, with the recent advances made in machine learning, we have arrived at an ethical crossroads where we need to determine the role AI will play in shaping our shared futures. Our immediate ethical challenge is to consider how best we can use AI to advance human well-being and how best we can prepare people for an AI world. We have a window of opportunity, to step back and purposely design an AI world that ushers in a more inclusive global society and economic system that exists today. If we fail to build the ethical dimension into each stage of our AI journey, an alternative route that perpetuates the current polarization of wealth and resources within and between societies seems inevitable. The academic world has put in place an ethics regime around research with humans which may be the appropriate starting point in considering the type of ethical framework necessary to guide ongoing AI developments. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure AI will take us to places where we want to go and that the journey will change us in ways that enable us to evolve and flourish as human beings.

APRA Fever Hits Australia

Reacting to the intense scrutiny of the financial and insurance sectors by the Royal Commission https://bit.ly/1RwMBZ9 and Apra’s https://bit.ly/2MCaLWI recommendations, Corporate Australia has gone into a bit of a tailspin about what they should be doing that they are not already. How quickly can they put in place some sort of defensive shield against the regulator’s blowtorch that has suddenly turned on them?

The reality is there is no quick fix, no band-aid that can be applied. A kneejerk reaction would be a real missed opportunity for organisations to get their house in order for the long term. The bigger question is not how they got into this mess in the first place – a mess of their own making – but how do they retrofit a culture that has integrity and meets the needs and aspiration of all stakeholders, their customers, their employees, their shareholders and society at large.

The business case for doing so has been well proven https://bit.ly/1uprsXi, that leaders who manage for all their stakeholders outperform those with shareholder only priorities. Most organisations already have in place the values and conduct risk protocols that Apra is recommending; what they lack is the conviction to put them into daily practice. Business needs to move beyond paper compliance and actively breathe life into those protocols as the foundation of how they do business. Current constructs of leadership need to evolve into an ethical leadership model https://bit.ly/2KJxzG8 rather than “leadership as usual”. Contemplating conduct risk offers a transitional model that would potentially avoid many of the crises that have befallen the financial services industry.

The new paradigm of “a risk culture approach” describes the values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and understanding of risk shared by boards and organisational members. It concerns both financial and non-financial risks. The exposure of conduct risks in the financial sectors led to many of the customer sufferings that has so shocked the public.

The Royal Commission into Banking and Finance, https://ab.co/2Nv6fKi has presented institutional leaders with a golden opportunity to breathe life into their existing value statements and codes of conduct. Rather than seeing them as legal requirements, we need to take a new approach to build organisational integrity and workplace culture, one that begins from a mental model that “thinks human first” and sees employees as consumers too.

Thinking human first would encourage business to develop a very different roadmap to success as well as risk management. Move beyond the current crop of “heat maps” that seek to explain systems, not people, and instead explore the human dynamics shaping the – individual and group “mindsets”, resentments, misunderstandings, contextual pressures, interpersonal rivalry, perverse incentives and role modelling, destructive communications, departmental politics and a host of other social and psychological influences that together shape human behaviour in the workplace. It’s complex, it can be done, and, it requires new “mental models” such as those emerging in new start-ups.

This significantly younger generation of business leaders begin from a different place and a very different cultural story unfolds https://bit.ly/2MMprSy. Here, leaders purposely design culture to ensure employees flourish. Establishing the bigger purpose from the outset means everyone becomes a risk manager because they want to contribute to that bigger story of making a difference and delivering positive impacts.

Boards, too, need to change their mental model of the skills needed around the table. Who can help them to better understand the human dynamics driving the direction of their organisations? What new sciences do they need to understand to better lead the organisations they are charged with shaping? The Royal Commission has vividly demonstrated that giving priority to shareholder interests can lead to conduct risk, customer angst, social media outrage, and brand disintegration; it’s time to at least contemplate a new governance model.

So, let’s hit the pause button. Let’s take this opportunity to step up and think about how organisational members are going to be together before moving on to what will be the output of their collective efforts. Beyond that, let’s think about how the world has changed and why Boards also need to change. We need new talent to build the social infrastructure that enables an enterprise to flourish; big picture thinkers who deal in the dynamics of continuous change and its relationship to organisational vitality. As Einstein once famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Do we need another hashtag viral campaign to make AI safe for females?

Just when we thought the #MeToo and #TimesUp viral campaigns were dealing deathblows to institutionalised sexism; another spectre has emerged to threaten female social and economic progress.

The advances being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications and machine learning are not gender neutral. According to research by Dr. Brahnam, Assistant Professor in Computer Information Systems at Missouri State University, users direct more sexual and profane comments towards female-presenting chatbots than their male counterparts and this harassment of female chatbots may well contribute to the entrenchment of our existing societal trend of females sexual harassment.

Brahnam’s research highlights the potential of AI to perpetuate gender bias, role stereotyping, prejudices and abusive behaviour towards women – in virtual and flesh and blood arenas.

A recent survey undertaken by the British Science Association found that the average UK person has little knowledge of the current impact of AI advances and are apprehensive of its potential negative impacts. Tackling low general awareness of how AI is already being embedded into our daily routines may well be the next biggest challenge for the female equality movement.

We have all experienced how the most popular and widely adopted AI virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home, have all been designed and programmed with socially prescribed female personas. Dr Brahnam suggests that the design and coding of these virtual assistants perpetuate the stereotype that women are subservient to males. With the ever-growing widespread use of chatbots across industries, academic research shows that users direct more sexual and profane comments towards female-presenting chatbots as well as attributing negative stereotypes. They are also more often the objects of implicit and explicit sexual attention and swear words.

Leah Fessler in Quartz reviewed how different female sounding bots responded to various forms of harassment. Her findings suggest that the design and coding responses indicate coders were anticipating sexual harassment but had decided not to tackle the anticipated virtual sexual harassment by coding more socially responsible responses. Instead the existing bot response, Leah suggests, helps entrench sexist bias through their passivity. Does not doing something to address a known social bias help perpetuate that bias? Is this one of the ethical issues of AI that needs to be seriously addressed and very quickly as the march of AI is currently outstripping regulators ability to put boundaries around it?

A precedent has already been established in the world of virtual games where for example, World of Warcraft (WoW) users get an immediate suspension if players use offensive language or bully others and still others, deliberately coded to promote positive social interactions and positive female role models. It has been suggested that the WoW game, for example, is coded within a virtue ethics framework.

Leah suggests that the R& D companies and manufacturers who are designing, and marketing digital female stereotypes perhaps have a much higher accountability because of their potential global social impact. Instead of ignoring the problem. She suggests designers could adopt a positive and proactive role in addressing harassment by coding potential responses that challenge the bias. Responses such as “harassment is unacceptable” or “ are you aware that denigrating females is a human rights issue” or “please observe appropriate standards when interacting with females in the virtual and physical worlds. Or like the gaming world, they could “sinbin” users for anything from 3 – 72 hours and/or even totally suspend users until better behaviour is demonstrated.

There is ample research to show how females are under-represented in the technology industry and how they hold disproportionately fewer tech-related jobs throughout the developed world Are we already seeing the ethical implications of this in the design of the current crop of chatbots with their unemancipated female personas?

The tech giants of Silicon Valley have been accused of operating with an ethos of “Build first” and ask for forgiveness later. Females may have to pay a much higher price for this approach. Perhaps we need a new #ethicalAI campaign to emerge to persuade regulators that inclusion here also is a social imperative. How can we ensure that techos do not decide the pace of social change for half of humankind?

Is there a Harvey Weinstein lurking in your organisation?

The speed with which countless Hollywood stars, directors and movie moguls have come out in little over a week to say they knew what was going on is beyond belief! They all knew, they said, but chose to keep quiet for a variety of reasons. It’s now inevitable that other names will appear as perpetrators of similar habitual harassment and abuse of women. Already, a hashtag #metoo has emerged for people who want to say ‘enough is enough’.

But is it enough? Outside of Hollywood, there have been many instances of such intolerable behaviour over the last few years, including here in Australia. Weinstein’s defence of “that was then, this is now” is pathetic.

Many people knew, could have known, should have known; should have said something. But the prevailing culture in many organisations is to ‘go along to get along’. A wide variety of rationalisations are used to justify silence: ”somebody else will surely say something”; “it’s not my role to handle HR issues”; “He’s a powerful man. How can I stand up to him?”; “They’re all the same; there’s too many of them”; and, “it’s been going on for so long and many people know about it, how’s it going to look if I speak up now?” We always have to focus on the impact such behaviour is having on the person at the centre of it, so it doesn’t matter when atten-tion is called to it. At least it stops.

Organisations have Codes of Conduct that expressly call out this sort of behaviour. Why do they not work; why do they not protect employees from this sort of gross behaviour? Because, regrettably, as we see in the Weinstein case, it starts in the executive suite where there is often a ‘cone of silence’ when it comes to uncon-scionable conduct. If leaders don’t hold each other accountable for poor behaviour, that tells people the sorts of behaviour they can get away with.

Failure at the top then signals to managers below, that they too can get away with bad behaviour. It’s the cause of many dysfunctional business cultures. It costs on the bottom line, and gives rise to low productivity, low innovation and lack of employee engagement Gallup. At its most fundamental, people don’t speak up because they don’t have the language – or skills and practice, or courage – to call out this sort of behaviour.

“Speak up” cultures have become the latest corporate desirable in the wake of regulator demands and stron-ger whistleblowing protection. However, little has been done so far to pave the way for such cultures to emerge. Speak-up aspirations are more akin to a corporate wish list. Let’s put it out there and somehow, magi-cally; it will happen. If only human behaviour were that simple.
However, there is an answer. The work of Mary Gentle and her Giving Voice to Values training shows it is possible; that it requires a new way of thinking and a new set of skills to make behaviour change easier. Techniques such as

  • Identifying your core values and ways in which you feel comfortable acting on them whether it’s by having one to one conversations or writing memos or gathering a coalition of like-minded people to address a values challenge
  • Building on the organisations ways of solving problems by reflecting on what’s worked in the past
  • Pre-script how you defend your values and be prepared when challenges present themselves
  • Rehearse with peers or mentors your strategies so you are well prepared
  • Speak for self and focus on behaviours. People will often dismiss inappropriate behaviour as a ‘one-off’ (having a bad day, etc.) but if you can point to several incidences they’ll know that it’s a pattern that’s been observed.

At its simplest, it means surfacing and building on the human dimension of business, the human relationships which are at the core of all business activity. It demands a new type of authenticity from leaders, one that seeks to eliminate the gap between what they say they value and how they go about living those values daily, including meeting the challenge of holding peers to account for their poor role modelling. It means looking inwards to identify how we have excused poor behaviour in the past and then rehearsing how to act better in those challenging situations that will inevitably come to light again.

In reality, most of the time, most of us do know what the right thing to do is. It’s not that its grey, it’s more that we don’t know a safe way of taking action and acting on our values. Instead of moralising, Mary Gentle’s techniques move the enquirer from simply reflecting on the issue to a focus on problem-solving and action.

If we truly wish to promote healthy workplace cultures, then leaders need to build the behavioural infrastruc-ture that enables healthy workplace relationships to emerge. A Code of Conduct is not enough to guide and maintain workplace behaviour standards. For too many, it’s become a case of “set and forget.” To be a living document the Code’s intent has to be supported by workplace learning opportunities that enable positive human relationships to flourish.

E-learning won’t do it. It’s not a cognitive task; when people know the right thing to do, they also need to know “how” they can do so safely, and that is an outstanding challenge for employees at every level in organi-sations today. It’s only by truly valuing your corporate values and supporting the sort of relationships they can enable or disable in the workplace, that will prevent a version of a Weinstein-style time bomb ticking away in your organisation.

Code of Conduct – a barrier to good conduct?

Gallup reports only 15% of employees are engaged at work today. Is your poorly designed Code of Conduct the start of this disengagement?

If you were to conduct a survey in your organisation with one single question, “Who has read the Code of Conduct?” how many people – employees, managers, senior executives – are likely to say, “yes”? The majority? A few? Hardly anyone? Our guess is hardly anyone and yet the Code of Conduct is possibly the most important document governing the organisation’s relationship with all its employees and safeguarding its reputation and social licence to operate!

For most organisations, especially publicly listed companies, those in the public sector and the larger not-for-profits, the Code of Conduct also enshrines the legal obligations both parties have to each other, the framework for how people can expect to be treated at work and the protections afforded to employees in the event of a breach.

Our experience suggests that Codes of Conduct often have little meaning for employees. They don’t understand its contents or how to apply its directions; they are not motivated to use it as it wasn’t designed with their needs in mind.

Typically, a Code of Conduct comes out of the legal department, and is written in ‘legalese’ – the complex version of English that lawyers need to use to make sure their documents can be defended in a court of law. Legalese is not readily understood by many employees who don’t understand its full implications and will likely never have recourse to the law. And yet, it’s presented to them on their first day in the workplace as a fait accompli and they’re told to just sign it.

Typically, they will sign a document that they haven’t had a chance to read and then the Code is not mentioned again until they do something wrong. Often its sole purpose is to reprimand employees for poor behaviour.

Is there a different way?

Our approach is to engage clients in first identifying what their Code’s objectives are and who it’s designed for. Is it there to serve the legal department, the HR department or the needs of employees? If its primary objective is to help employees know what is expected of them, then we need to start with their needs in mind.

What are the needs of the employee in understanding why their company or organisation has a Code of Conduct (and, hopefully, a Code of Ethics as well); how best can the leaders of the organisation design a Code’s content so that it resonates with employees’ needs and can be delivered in a style and format that into account the different learning styles and levels of comprehension that exist throughout most employee workforces.

Different levels of staff have different accountabilities and require different content styles and nuances while still being true to the spirit of the code. Each level of staff also requires examples of specific behaviours that will and will not represent the organisation’s standards.

For one organisation, we designed several different versions of training content to support the Code of Conduct’s intent for their different staff stakeholders and their unique spheres of influence. Each workshop was highly interactive, based on authentic workplace challenges that were able to resonate with people in different occupations, at different levels and coming from different demographic and psychographic backgrounds. Designing code of conduct training that has integrity with employees needs requires this sort of detailed nuancing if employees are to get past the go button of engagement. Authenticity and relevance to them and their situation is the first barrier that must be surmounted.

So, does your Code guide conduct, shape the context in which people work, give them a sense of purpose, or just sit on their employee file as a ticking performance time bomb?

This piece is an extract from a forthcoming book on how to make your Code work.

The moral compass – an anachronism in a digitally connected world

Why do the banks, and so many others, continue to get caught in the headlights of public scrutiny for unacceptable behaviour; why do they fail to satisfy the demands of the stakeholder economy and continue to get it wrong? Is it because they confuse ethics with morality? Morals are about how you, we, they define for themselves/ourselves what is right and wrong in a personal realm. What we have seen over many years is ‘good’ people doing ‘bad’ things and still believing themselves to be good people. And it’s simply no longer good enough. You are what you do, not what you think. Actions are what people judge you on; not your intentions but your behaviour. Business ethics, or institutional integrity, defines how the organisation, made up of all its people and its agencies, holds firm to a set of principles that are above the law and beyond the minimum. Cogent, potent statements of business ethics that are clearly understood, reinforced through how performance is measured and established as the cultural vein that carries the lifeblood of the organisation, ensure not that you get it right but that you don’t get it wrong.

Sadly, for many in business, ethics continues to be a grey area and something of a discretionary investment. Typically, organisations start from the assumption that most people want to do the right thing. However, ‘behaviour science’ shows us that this is not where organisational leaders should be starting from. The science shows that most people are not as ethical as they think they are; that they will find themselves compromising their values in certain contexts, or under certain pressures, and that they can remain blindsided to this slippage. Often, people operate on automatic pilot and simply go on what has gone before, copying the behaviour of their peers to fit in and taking short cuts because they assume they know what the context requires. This flies in the face of the obvious – that the world is continually changing in interconnected ways and most of us are powerless to shape the contexts in which we find ourselves. At work, we will be persuaded that the end justifies the means, the company needs us to do what’s necessary to make the figures, the customer can come first if that doesn’t get in the way of making targets or that it’ll all work out in the long run.

Leaders who continue to rely on the idea of “a moral compass” may themselves suffer from “bounded ethicality” arising from their failure to adopt a wider range of tools to equip themselves to identify and manage the ethical issues inherent in their business contexts.

Clearly what we need is a paradigm shift away from the moral philosopher’s focus with individual character and towards an understanding of the science of behaviour and its premise that, as employees, managers and leaders, we are essentially emotional beings that respond in irrational ways to the organisational contexts in which we find ourselves.

Business ethics are essentially about institutional integrity. Risk management needs to be re-classified as doing business ethically to protect the organisation by building a healthy culture that can risk-proof the enterprise. This new type of ethical accountability shifts the focus from individual character strengths or weakness, to the actions leaders take to design their organisational cultures.

Global regulators, including APRA, are warning Boards that behaviour in the workplace is a systemic source of financial, social and, environmental risk and they expect them to purposely manage the types of behaviour they promote.

Leading brands such as GE, 3M, Patagonia, Marks & Spencers, Avon or Starbucks show us how a consistent culture underpins business success and how it is essential to skill employees to respond to the contextual pressures they will inevitably face. Leaders play a major role by ensuring a zero tolerance for poor role modelling from the top. No matter which country they are in, the culture is the same. These organisations begin with a recognition that the leader’s role is to create an organisational context where employees are forewarned and forearmed about contextual pressures so that they can better respond to these in ways that do not comprise ethical standards.

Australia’s current cultural perspective of ethics as the preserve of individual morality sets the bar of acceptable business standards too low and keeps Board focus on compliance rather than addressing the ethical risks inherent in everyday business contexts.

Cultural and behavioural change is not an easy task. Enabling systems and processes, strong leadership, regular training and performance management, targeted engagement and communications are all critical to empowering people to think, feel and act in a way that builds a culture of integrity and respect.

It’s time to abandon reliance on “moral compasses” or hide behind notions of “greyness”. Employees know what ethical behaviour looks like; customers know it; regulators know it; and social scientists have known it for over 100 years.

It’s time to sacrifice a couple of finance people from the Board and replace them with social scientists and maybe, just maybe leaders will see the next ethical crisis coming before it decimates a hard won reputation!