Beckie Hart of the CBI: Why ethics must be at the core of our approach to artificial intelligence

The computer scientist, Alan Turing, posed the eternal question: Can humans think?'Picture: Gary Longbottom
The computer scientist, Alan Turing, posed the eternal question: Can humans think?'Picture: Gary Longbottom
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Almost 70 years before he was immortalised on the £50 bank note, codebreaker and now celebrated computer scientist, Alan Turing, posed one of the most interesting questions ever faced by humankind: can machines think?

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Writing from his home in Wilmslow, near Manchester, Turing foresaw what many today consider the most important technological development of the 20th century: the rise of artificial intelligence.

Just a few decades later, AI is everywhere in Yorkshire and the Humber. From analysing legal documents to detecting financial fraud, firms are increasingly using machines and algorithms to transform the way we work. That leads us to the next big question for mankind: if machines can think, how do we want them to think? Essentially, how do we get AI ethics right?

For many of us, the word ‘ethics’ can sound esoteric. It conjures images of long-winded philosophical debates, dusty library books and old men musing over glasses of port. But the reality is that ethics impacts on all of us every day. And that’s true for businesses too.

How should they ensure a fair hiring process? Where should they invest? What’s the best way to manage their employees?

Yorkshire and Humber businesses need to get these answers right. Ethical decision-making matters to the public. Surveys suggest around nine in ten people expect businesses to speak out on key social issues – and are likely to view CEOs more favourably for doing so.

When it comes to data privacy CBI research shows that the way a company treats personal data is the most important factor for customers when deciding where to spend their pay cheque. And the evidence goes on – diverse teams make better decisions, algorithms with built-in biases lose money, and staff who have no voice in company decisions are likely to leave.

In other words, building trust and acting responsibly can become a great competitive advantage. In the battle for the shopping basket, businesses should be in an arms race to improve the world around them.

AI makes existing ethical questions for business more urgent and can raise new ones, too. Because of this, the CBI has this week launched a new guide for businesses, ‘AI: Ethics into Practice’, which contains practical steps they can take for a more ethical approach to AI.

The guide identifies three Es for practical ethics: embed, engage, and explain. As one business reminded us, “ethics needs to flow through a whole business to be effective” – and when firms embed it at the core of their approach to AI, engage employees so they can participate in an AI-powered workplace, and explain AI to customers, ethics will impact on all aspects of their day-to-day work.

The good news is that globally speaking, the UK is already ahead of the pack. While we might not be able to compete with China or the US in terms of sheer investment, we are well-placed to lead the world in developing ethical AI; technologies that are responsibly designed, which use data safely, and that drive human progress.

Ultimately, of course, AI is simply a tool; people, not machines, are responsible for our future. But as Alan Turing said back in 1949, we may be experiencing “only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be”.

If so, the question of how best to take an ethical approach to AI will continue to grow in importance in the coming years. Business is by no means the only voice in this conversation. But it should be a vocal one.