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Navigating Moral Challenges in Times of Uncertainty

May 20, 2020



Dr. Michael Hartmann along with panelists John Dalla Costa, Founder of the Centre for Ethical Education and Tim O’Brien, General Manager, AI Programs, Microsoft explore the challenges of creating and maintaining ethical standards and behaviours during and post-pandemic, in a session from The McMaster Collaboratorium on May 6.

Session Highlights

The law is always trying to catch up to our moral sensibilities.  The role of the board is not to follow the law, but to ask the tough moral questions that lead to ethical understanding, ahead of the creation of laws.

Directors are the Chief Ethical Officers of their organizations.  Those who work at the highest levels of both ethical and business attainment do extreme planning; asking the toughest questions and looking at the worst case scenarios.  Those boards who are looking at the complexities in detail are better prepared.

The key issue for boards and executives right now all over the world is to create assurance – for customers, for employees, for all stakeholders – and assurance comes from trust that can only be built through ethical care.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) raised the profile of ethics in innovation.  The pandemic has exposed trust issues, especially in relation to a more socio-technical lens, such as the preservation of privacy and how it impacts the ability to track and trace contacts as part of fighting the virus.

Technology has a role to play to augment what people can do – to empower people to solve problems – not to be the solution unto itself.  AI decision-making can be used to predict virus spread, but is tied to data sets from humans.

As we have seen in education – you can’t simply throw technology at a problem and assume that all will be well.  There are socio-economic factors that need to be considered.

Most of the ethical and tech fails that are reported are unintentional – completely legal actions that have unintended ethical impact, such as disrespecting people’s privacy and transparency on the reliance on algorithms to make decisions impacting customers.  There needs to be a higher bar than current laws and regulations.

Paradigms don’t shift in a crisis because we are focussed on trying to survive and return to what was there before – they usually shift years later when we can see the change effect in patterns.  This is playing out now, as boards and leaders are fully engulfed in dealing with immediate issues.  At some point soon, they need to reflect on what has happened.

This crisis of humanity, sits inside an ecological crisis, plus the challenges of new technology that will accelerate our capabilities, but we have not caught up with all of this ethically.  When we return to some normal, our wisdom will be there, but we will need to share and explore our experiences to move forward better than before.

We are in a moment of fragile possibility.  In the 60’s and 70’s corporations had a social contract with stakeholders.  In the 80’s the philosophy of business changed to give priority to the shareholder.  For the last 10 years, we have been shifting back to a multi-stakeholder model, but a lot of today’s leaders evolved in a time when financial results were the most important measurable standard.

Ethics and moral philosophy are graduation requirements for STEM degrees at most higher education institutions creating a new generation of more socially conscious leaders.  Ethical considerations around technology will no longer be optional in the near future.

Governance processes must be a part of technology development that aligns with the overall position of the organization.  Ethical guidelines for AI are available and fairly consistent, but need to be operationalized.  Boards need to ensure that products designed and developed adhere to the principles communicated by the organization.

Ethics occupies the space between 0 and 1.  There are unique human attributes that can not be replaced by technology.

Now is a moment for honest reflection.  What are the blind spots in the organization that have come to light this moment of disruption?  Responsible technology and business practices begins in design.  Ask the questions – all of the questions for best and worst case scenarios – from the very beginning.

Watch key messages from the webinar here.