Written by Michael Sippitt and

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The recently announced huge gift of £150 million to Oxford University by Stephen Schwarzman to fund a new institute for ethics in artificial intelligence is a reminder of the huge importance attached by many to the need for more ethical focus on issues arising from artificial intelligence and technology innovation.

We have to acknowledge that many organisations with the know-how and resource to address ethical issues effectively are generally subservient to their stakeholder interests. This may even apply within organisations plainly intending social or economic benefits to society.

Organisations with good intentions may therefore moderate their strategies or advocacy regarding issues where the stakeholders of that organisation lack sympathy with or are uninterested in the most ethical outcomes.

This brings into focus the clash about what ethics really are and can any global basis exist for shared ethics. The deep cultural, political and religious influences across the world affecting so many of the world population tend to prevail in considering what is ethical. This simply highlights that it is hard to reach global consensus on what is good or bad.

This affects human rights generally, where the focus is particularly sharp on very divergent views about the rights of individuals which may conflict with established norms of behaviour, whether derived from political dogma, religious or cultural beliefs or other traditions, and the issue of priorities also comes into play as immediate improvement of economic opportunities may prevail over long term harm, such as to future generations. This is of course strongly illustrated by the general conflict of interest over environmental challenges and the difficult balance between economic growth now and climate change catastrophe at an unknown future date.

This clash even plays out on an individual level as any person may weigh up choices for themselves between immediate gratification and long-term detriment. It is plain this balance is often resolved in favour of immediate benefit.

The concern is that at global level the choices are often not being made by the individuals affected, as the issues and priorities are not within their power to understand fully or determine. The hope may be that well-intentioned global organisations would provide the required expert influence and balance to weigh up and decide the best and most ethical pathways to follow. The real-world experience indicates that no organisation can truly achieve this independently of the diverse interests it has to serve for its own sustainability.

The ethical approach to AI and technology innovation generally is a really big issue of our time, hence the huge Schwarzman gift to Oxford. We must hope it is used well in the interests of us all and the future generations whose lives will be shaped even more by today’s technology innovations.

However, this is a very urgent topic of concern, and needs to be addressed by corporates and governments. We now hear constantly of concerns about where the IT world is going and the relentless invasion of human rights which is following along. Gradually trade union and public reaction will build up as the impact of innovation is increasingly realised and may be resented if over intrusive or harmful to individual wellbeing.

Yet getting concerted action will be hard and slow. The pace is that of a tortoise when trying to establish standards which are globally acceptable, indeed some standards which reflect western thinking on human rights are never globally accepted. Consensus is difficult and compromises result.

A step in the right direction is for business leaders to try and grasp the ethics nettle, and to ask themselves good questions about ethical implications of new technologies as well as the cost and pay back economically.

Human Resources professionals have to think hard about workforce impacts, personal detriments, and possible job losses of technology changes, as supply chain professionals also have to weigh up the attractive factors in managing supply and logistics of technology now on offer against the risk sooner or later of ethical challenges that may damage reputation even if nothing done was unlawful. In the world of social media and active campaigning against unethical practices, the law is not the only judge. Political and public opinion may prove harsher than the law.

Michael Sippitt
Clarkslegal LLP and Forbury People Ltd

24th June 2019