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9 months ago by Next Generation

Meet The Future CEOs - The Chief Ethics Officers

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As the problems arising from Silicon Valley’s tech bro culture have manifested themselves in all kinds of social and political problems, some quarters are calling for more adult supervision in the form of CEOs.

That’s Chief Ethics Officers to you and me. 

And they’ll be taking their seat at the top table sooner rather than later. (For the purposes of this post, we’ll call the role of a Chief Ethics Officer as “the new CEO” to differentiate from the more established Chief Executive Officer.)

Ethics and AI - a necessary match

According to a 2018 survey by Deloitte, 32% of 1,400 U.S. business executives who are knowledgeable about artificial intelligence (AI) ranked ethical concerns as one of the top three priorities for AI. 

Specifically, the findings of the survey show that business executives feel that “companies should improve risk and change management”. These steps should encompass reducing, or eliminating, cybersecurity vulnerabilities “and managing ethical risks”. 

Progressive companies, who want to be a force for good with their products and services, are increasingly starting to pay attention to the meeting point between AI and ethics. It’s in this environment that talk of the new CEOs is beginning to gain momentum.

A Chief Ethics Officer by any other name

As the C-Suite adapts to keep up with the fast pace changes technology is bringing, various new roles are emerging as critical to business success. Not all of them are clearly defined at this point.

Universally, the concept of the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) is well understood. However, the Chief Ethics Officer may be identified by various monikers. The individuals who occupy this seat may be known as a Compliance Officer, or even as a Chief Trust Officer.

The role, as of the current moment, is fluid. Apart from the fact that Chief Ethics Officers are still a new phenomenon, different industries have different requirements from their new CEO. 

In finance, for example, the most senior professional looking after compliance needs to be up to date with government and federal regulations first and foremost. This wouldn’t be the case in another industry.

These new CEOs have their work cut out for them. They are having to ensure the compliance of the organisation they’re working for while maintaining (or increasing) the competitive edge of these same organisations.

Timothy Casey is Professor in Residence at California Western School of Law. He’s also a member of the Ethics Committee of the San Diego Bar Association. Timothy sums up perfectly the conundrum new CEOs face when he says, “being first in ethics rarely matters as much as being first in revenues”.

Adopting an ethical approach as a way to do business also relates to the legacy inherent in certain industries. Timothy confirms that for some industries, ethics have been embedded into how business is done right from the start. But for others, ethics have never been part of “the rules” so to speak. 

“In medicine and law, you have an organisation that can revoke your license if you violate the rule, so the impetus to behave ethically is very high, [but] AI developers have nothing like that,” he says.

Stepping into complicated territory

Even for industries that have documented the ethical standards by which their professionals need to abide, ethics remain complicated. This is even more so the case for industries that have never had to (or wanted to) think about ethics.

However, some global brands are thinking carefully about their own code of conduct and ethical behaviour. Companies like these are the ones setting the tone for what ethics looks like in our new technology-driven environments in the dearth of any authoritative, external guidance.

Salesforce is one such example of a global company placing a higher value on ethics than the SaaS industry would have been known for before. 

Paula Goldman joined the SaaS behemoth at the beginning of 2019 as VP, Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer. Her remit is “to develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology”. 

This remit is an all-encompassing one that will cover everything from correct care of the environment to avoiding “fake news”. But, as Business Insider puts it, Paula’s main role is to ensure that Salesforce’s artificial intelligence isn’t used for evil

Google is also putting effort into getting its ethical house in order. As of yet, the search giant hasn’t appointed a Chief Ethics Officer, but it has appointed a board whose sole focus is the intersection of ethics and AI.

The board has gone on record for stating that their belief is that AI should:

  • Avoid bias

  • Benefit society

  • Include privacy principles

Google’s ethics board have published their principles online. Their opening paragraph provides a good indication of the approach the board is taking: “Google aspires to create technologies that solve important problems and help people in their daily lives. We are optimistic about the incredible potential for AI and other advanced technologies to empower people, widely benefit current and future generations, and work for the common good.”

The ethics board has proven itself to have some heft in its authority. Google has stated that a formal review structure is being created that will assess all new Google products against the rules identified by the board before they are deployed to market.

Understanding that ethics isn’t new

It’s one thing for companies with huge resources at their disposal, such as Salesforce and Google, to identify the need for ethics officers or boards - and then implement them. How should other companies keep up if they’re only at the beginning of their digital transformation journeys or don’t have deep pockets?

Two tactical ways that organisations can implement to prepare their staff for impending technological changes include:

  • Ask your executive teams to keep an eye on the technology advances being made in your own industry as well as in others. Examine how these developments could impact your own organisation. Are they threatening or do they open up new opportunities? Or do they do both?

  • Consider how other industries are dealing with compliance, developing a code of conduct, dealing with disruption etc. Are there frameworks that you could adapt to your own organisation and industry?

Robert Foehl, Executive-In-Residence for Business Law and Ethics at the Ohio University College of Business helps industries understand the approach they need to take in this new environment.

“The fact that you have an emerging technology doesn’t matter,” he says, “since you have thinking you can apply to any situation.” Whether it’s AI or big data or any other new tech, says Foehl, “we still put it into an ethical framework. Just because it involves a new technology doesn’t mean it’s a new ethical concept.”