ethics in technology

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Ethics and Compliance in Technology

We are living through a pivotal moment in the evolution of business ethics and compliance in technology.

With the growth of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), we are realizing the dreams of decades past, of being able to leverage the power of computing for unprecedented advances.

But humans tend to muck up unprecedented opportunities, and they have a lousy track record for using exceptional power without harming others.

The stories of the failures and misuse of technology are all over the news. Unprecedented digital surveillance of public spaces. Built-in racial bias in AI decisioning algorithms. Violations of medical privacy. Misuse of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies. Lack of transparency and oversight. Huge data breaches of private and public data stores. Search engine and social media AI contributing to political extremism and radicalization.

Get Ahead of Compliance

In an attempt to rein in these excesses, the European Union has not only established General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) but has drafted an Artificial Intelligence Act that will likely have significant impact on any European or global business. Getting familiar with these regulations and taking action now to get into compliance is good risk management for any affected company. This article by Lori Witzel, Director of Research at TIBCO, provides a good overview of the Artificial Intelligence Act.

Compliance is important, but as technologists, we need to do more to ensure that the work that we do and the products that we create and implement do no harm. “Do no harm” sounds ridiculously simple, but it is not. It’s actually a complex and all-encompassing ethical framework that requires a cultural shift. How can you, as a company or an individual technologist, develop an ethical mindset in your work?

Person's hand holding a compass

Establish an Ethical Framework

Shift your vision – As I discuss in another article ‘What is your Why‘, positioning your organization and products in the service of your community is an incredibly powerful way of guiding product design. Read your company vision and mission statements. Do they include an ethical point of view? Dig deeper and get honest about articulating your principles.

Embrace diversity – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Diversity of leadership, design, development, testing, and/or diversity of every team in your organization, is incredibly important. How will your design impact your customers and prospects who happen to be people of color, people with disabilities, marginalized people? Are you doing the right thing while reducing your organization’s reputational risk. Get input from the groups your product will impact through community stakeholders. Recruit and retain people who bring diversity to your organization. By broadening your inputs instead of defaulting to personas on a slide, you’ll get universally better results that are rooted in strong business ethics.

Bring in the naysayers – Most organizations sideline the naysayers. We want a St. Crispin’s Day “we happy few, we band of brothers” camaraderie. But the office isn’t a battlefield. It’s a constant conversation of opposing views. Some folks are really good at seeing the downsides, and the potential negative consequences. Instead of pushing them to the side, give them scope to analyze the outcomes and make recommendations. They’re not bad team players or Debbie Downers. They’re smart people who actually want to help you steer clear of problems. Let them.

Consider consequences – Once your analysts have identified the potential outcomes and risks, use that information to guide your decisions and direction. Sometimes it might mean walking away from a problematic client or partner. Sometimes it might mean a design change. Sometimes it might mean scrapping a project altogether. If you have established guiding ethical principles, don’t be afraid to make tough choices to stay aligned to them.

Democratize decision making – No one person or small group of like-minded people is able to make consistently good decisions in a vacuum. This doesn’t mean that every organization needs to have a 100% cooperative decision-making process, but you should have meaningful involvement from relevant stakeholders. I’m reminded of one of my favorite breweries in Texas that was considering whether to expand operations outside the state, which meant a big change in regulatory compliance overhead. Every employee had a vote, and they chose to stay a Texas-only business. Why, when the potential financial upside was so big? Because they wanted to focus on making the best quality product they could and ensure the business remained a great place to work. That’s a definition of success that met their ethical framework.

In my next article, I’ll explore using visual models to help support compliance and ethical product design. 

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