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Let’s be smart about smart technologies

  • Posted on May 24, 2016

Smart technologies

This is a guest blog post written by Avanade alum, Alex Cebulsky.

I recently mentioned to my 12-year-old daughter that artificial intelligence will be able to outsmart us by 2045. She got very upset, feeling that this would be the end of the human race and saying, “Then we can kill ourselves, otherwise we will be killed by them.” My daughter’s reaction was childish (which one would expect from a 12-year-old). But when world-leading technology and science visionaries also express concerns about the dangers of artificial intelligence, maybe we should pay attention. Physicist Stephen Hawking, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk and Microsoft founder Bill Gates have all expressed concerns that computers and smart technologies may eventually outsmart humans and, through calculations based in cold logic without regard to the value of human life, could lead to our own demise.

While artificial intelligence that threatens our basic rights is still science fiction, projects like Google’s self-driving car or Microsoft’s AI chat bot continue to deploy more capable smart technologies. Projects like these pave the way for automated, self-learning, machine-made decisions. And these automated decisions are the essence of the problem Hawking, Musk and Gates talk about.

What if a self-driving car is confronted with a choice of protecting its passenger or swerving to avoid a child that ran into the street? Isn’t then technology deciding about human safety or life? If a phone replies to a conversation on its owners behalf, or omits parts of a message, isn’t technology deciding about freedom of speech? These are decisions that we would leave up to individuals, legislators or the legal system. Are we comfortable turning them over to a machine?

In the last several years, technology has gotten smarter, but very few regulations have emerged to ensure that our human rights are part of the smart technology equation. For now, it is up to companies and their employees—especially in the technology space—to innovate thoughtfully with full consideration of the ethical gray areas where technology is already leading us.

Avanade’s recent research on digital ethics demonstrates that executives are aware of the need to address ethics around how they deal with both customers and employees, but not many have moved from awareness to action. Seventy-eight percent of executives surveyed believe they have not given enough thought to ethical workplace dilemmas, and only 43 percent have established guidelines on work impacted by smart technologies.

Ethisphere - Ethical Companies 2016Avanade was recently named a “World’s Most Ethical Company”® by the Ethisphere Institute. We work closely with clients to help find the balance between applying smart technology to business advantage and eroding human rights. As Avanade’s Chief Technology Innovation Officer Chris Miller said in a recent blog post on our Technology Vision 2016, “Our digital behaviors, intent and movement leave “footprints” across sensors, applications, workplace tools, social platforms and more; and these footprints are increasing on a daily basis. With such an expanded surface area, spanning work and personal lives, the corresponding increased risk needs to be accepted and managed. In this environment, digital ethics is more than a nice to have and will be the cornerstone of the new digital economy.”

Based on Avanade’s research and internal best practices, we have come up with an approach that might help build ethics and integrity into a company’s framework.

  1. Build ethics review cycles into your organizational structure
  2. Ensure compliance with existing legal landscape
  3. Maintain a dialogue with stakeholders around ethical issues
  4. Don‘t leave ethical decisions up to software developers
  5. Don‘t allow machines to make decisions over human beings

With thoughtful dialogue and commitment to ethics, we will be able to keep moving forward with smart technologies without having to leave behind our most treasured rights. And the future for my daughter and additional generations, will be shaped by our ability to work and live with technology, not for it.

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