Joanna Goodman reports from last week’s Digital ethics summit.

Governments, national and international institutions and businesses must join forces to make sure that AI and emerging technology are deployed successfully and responsibly. This was the central message from TechUK’s second Digital Ethics Summit in London.

Antony Walker, TechUK’s deputy CEO set out the purpose of the summit: “How to deliver on the promise of tech that can provide benefits for people and society in a way that minimises harm”.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the day. Kate Rosenshine, data architect at Microsoft reminded us that data is not unbiased and inclusivity and fairness are critical to data-driven decision-making. She quoted Cathy Bessant, CTO of Bank of America:

Technologists cannot lose sight of how algorithms affect real people.

Consumer trust

Digital Minister Margot James focused on the importance of the consumer, stating that “innovative businesses can only thrive when the people trust that technology is working for them and that they will be protected from harm.”

She outlined the steps that the government have taken so far, notably the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which is working on projects examining how data shapes people’s online experiences and the potential for bias in decisions made using algorithms.

But accountability for ethical, responsible technology is not just down to government and regulation. “Industry too must play an even bigger part, and of course has a vested interest in doing so; the companies that earn their customers’ trust are the ones that will thrive.”

This is particularly relevant in light of scandals related to data use involving Facebook, Google and Amazon this year.

Employee ethics

Digital ethics is also about keeping the workforce on side. Rob McCargow, director of artificial intelligence at PwC, who chaired a panel discussion of ethics in practice by business, referred to Salesforce hiring Paula Goldman as its first Chief Ethical and Humane Use offer, and the discussion touched on the employee protests at Salesforce and also at Google.

These were not about employee pay and conditions at either company, but about the ways their AI technology was being deployed. This is a relatively recent development: millennials especially seek alignment between their personal principles and beliefs and the corporate values of the business they work for. From an organisational perspective, ethical corporations are winning the war for talent, so ethics are directly affecting the competitive environment.

Data protection

Data is the most important consideration in business. It is often described as ‘the new oil’. The panel discussed how businesses are gathering, using and protecting customer data. Riccardo Masucci, global director of privacy policy at Intel, outlined his recommendations which included risk-based accountability, explainability and the observation that “it takes data to protect data” by detecting biases and cyber threats.

Matteo Berlucchi, CEO of Your MD, is working on an external auditing process to validate datasets for use in machine learning in healthcare.

Emma Wright, a partner at law firm Kemp Little who advises on emerging technology, found a new analogy.  “From a legal perspective, data is the new forklift truck, and data protection is the equivalent to health and safety,” she said, adding that the GDPR requires businesses to conduct a data protection impact assessment and advised businesses to review their datasets – including the reasons for collecting the data.

Ana Perales, strategic transformation director at Barclays, brought the discussion back to consumers. “The challenge for banks and financial services is to help people understand AI without making everyone a data scientist.” Barclays’ approach is to view everything they do through the lens of the customer.

Data privacy problems

The afternoon sessions were dominated by dilemmas around establishing trust – and fairness. “If we are to realise data’s full potential, we must make data trust and ethical data conduct the core of every organisation’s culture,” said Lenny Stein, senior vice president global affairs at Splunk.

Darren Jones MP wondered whether individuals see value in the way data is used:

My constituents want to know that someone has their back and there’s fairness in the system.

Caroline Normand, director of policy at Which? referred to its research findings that although people love gadgets, they are not comfortable with their data being collected and used – 89% of survey respondents were concerned that unknown companies were building profiles about them and these profiles might be used in ways that were not in their interests.

The final panel discussed key issues from the day and what lies ahead. Tabitha Goldstaub, co-founder of CognitionX and chair of the government’s AI Council, flagged up the disconnect between businesses and individuals on data privacy and digital ethics, the need for a broader, more international debate and a better general understanding of the benefits and the challenges of technology and digitisation.