Disruptive technologies offer tremendous opportunity for businesses to become smarter, more flexible, and more responsive. But people often fail to understand the ramifications of their usage, running into bigger risks to businesses. It is then that the question of digital ethics comes into the picture.
Let’s say, a private bank decides to use machine learning to filter out who is eligible for a loan. The machine learning will need training on a data set, which could be historical data or user created data. If, historically, the bank has denied loans to a certain category of people, the same bias would carry forward to the machine. So essentially, they have transferred this bias to the system and now the system would deny loans to that certain category of people.
The above example is a classic case of digital ethics – a topic of immediate concern and deliberation not only for private organizations, but also for the government, regulatory bodies and end users, explains Vishal Jain, Partner at Deloitte India in a freewheeling chat with CXOToday.
The growing concerns of Digital Ethics
While digital ethics has been a topic of discussion ever since businesses started moving online, the pandemic has made it a greater priority. With more businesses embracing digital technologies like AI/ML, big data, cloud, IoT and more in a big way, the need of the hour is to revisit the business operations layered on digital touch points, thinking around ethical uses of technology.
Given the growing concerns around information and content available over digital platforms, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India LLP conducted a study jointly with Bangalore Chamber of Commerce (BCIC) in April to emphasize on the immediate need for India Inc. to introduce and adopt a “Digital Ethics framework” that would ensure a holistic view of ethics, and govern every digital intervention in the transformation journey of a business.
With the EU recently releasing standards and considerations for ethics use of AI and several global organizations are also adopting standards for Open AI, Jain clearly sees a movement towards making Digital ‘safe to use’ and ensuring that treatment of data is within the acceptable limits from data subject’s perspective.
However, organizations often face challenges related to privacy, algorithmic bias, and a range of other technology-related ethical issues that leads to reputational and even financial risks.
The problem is, leaders seldom develop an overall approach to the ethical impacts of technology use and more so, companies fail to consider technology to be their core business, even as they increasingly rely on advanced digital and physical technologies to run their day-to-day operations. “All these concerns have made it crucial to have an ethical framework that would ensure effective governance and risk mitigation aspects are in place,” says Jain.
Jain states that businesses must address Digital Ethics at three levels: 1. Digital Ethics for the consumer 2. Digital Ethics as it applies to the provider of digital services and 3. Ethical treatment of the data generated by this interaction. Digital Ethics has to be managed at multiple levels, and it has to be made prevalent across the organizations by integrating it with various functions.
Making Digital Ethics a Priority
The research suggests that companies that are more advanced digitally tend to be more focused on technology-related ethics than companies that are still early in their digital journey. But technological maturity alone doesn’t drive ethical tech. These companies are also typically supported by leaders who understand the impacts of technology disruptors from a diverse and inclusive set of stakeholders, and foster an organizational culture of continuous learning, debate, transparency, and open dialogue.
For organizations to successfully introduce digital ethics, Jain recommends the following:
- Communicating the importance of digital ethics is the key, where the view must flow from top down and this is a culture driven by leadership, so as to lead by example
- Creation of a digital ethics committee or council to ensure that all digital projects are reviewed and thus they are enabled towards a long lasting impact on digital program is important
- Creating a policy that will help the organisation to imbibe the above practices into the processes and technical development is a significant step
- Increasing awareness on the subject and training delivered to stakeholders involved in fulfilling the value chain will bring the necessary adoption
The Future of Digital Ethics
Needless to say then digital ethics depends on leaders making it a priority, fostering the culture of ethics in everything they do and developing ethical decision-making processes.
Looking into the future of digital ethics, Jain believes, while at present only a few companies are early movers to capture data across different dimensions and sources, we will see more organizations building their own digital ethic frameworks involving key functions like data privacy, ethics, human resources, technology, business, and risks.
“We will also see establishment of ethics committees and these will be playing an active role in the development of digital programs. More countries will establish standards for digital ethics which will be monitored both at the societal and organization level over the next few years,” he mentions.
By embracing an ethical technology mindset, organizations can anticipate and respond to ethical challenges that emerge over time.