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Technology Ethics

The Future of Responsible Tech: Experts Share Their Lessons and Predictions for 2021

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As we reflect on the myriad of challenges faced over the past year, responsible technology continues to be at the forefront of global discourse, especially as both the COVID-19 pandemic and society’s calls for greater racial equality and justice continue to evolve.

In 2020, our Office of Ethical and Humane Use worked to guide the responsible development of our pandemic-response product, Work.com, published principles for equitable vaccine management technology solutions, and focused on our Inclusive Product Language journey. 

Technology alone cannot solve systemic health and social inequities. In order to be effective, technology must be built and used responsibly — because no matter how good a tool is, people won’t use it unless they trust it. 

As we begin this next year, it’s clear there are a lot of questions we as part of the tech community must continue to make progress on in 2021: How will data be protected during the COVID-19 vaccine roll out? What are companies doing to mitigate racial bias in their AI implementations? And, what role do we play in helping create a safer, more united world?

To that end, we’ve reached out to our own experts in AI, design, policy, and product to share their thoughts on what their biggest challenges and lessons were last year, and what their top predictions are for the year ahead. 

Meaningful Steps to Mitigate Racial Bias in AI

The single biggest challenge our profession and industry must solve is automated racism. We find racial bias in AI-informed medical care decisions, hiring recommendations, and access to housing. Developers must acknowledge that racial bias may be embedded in the training data and AI models they build and use. 

Companies need to engage deeply with the Black and Brown leaders working in the industry to root out bias in AI, and work to make sure their teams reflect the communities they serve. We also need meaningful regulation to identify when racial bias is occuring, offer recourse and remediation to those impacted, and apply serious consequences to those that inflict it. — Kathy Baxter, Principal Architect, Ethical AI Practice

Systemic racism impacts nearly every aspect of life, and as the use of AI grows, so does the potential for harm.

Kathy Baxter, Principal Architect, Ethical AI Practice

Faster and More Responsible Pharmaceutical Development

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on drug discovery. While drug development has typically taken over 10 years in the past, in the wake of COVID-19, the acceleration of traditional methods is paramount. Doing this work responsibly, while ensuring that health training data is representative of all, will be no small feat. However, it’s essential for 2021 and beyond, as AI and machine learning will usher in an era of quicker, cheaper, and more effective drug discovery. — Yoav Schlesinger, Principal, Ethical AI Practice

Greater Need for Equity and Access to Technology

My biggest lesson learned from 2020 is the importance of equity in digital transformation. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated years of digitization in mere months. Many activities moved online overnight, and, when technology access isn’t universal, that exacerbates existing inequity. For example, while 96% of folks who earn between $30,000 and $50,000 have a cellphone, only 78% have a smartphone. So it’s important to us, as technology builders, to keep equity centered in our work. Can this offline process be digitized? Can it also be made accessible to those who may not have access to the latest technology? Only when the answer to both questions is “yes” can we be confident that we’re truly building for all. — Rob Katz, Senior Director, Ethical & Humane Use

A Call for Companies to Prioritize Digital Privacy and Data Ethics

Privacy is of increasing importance to individuals around the world, including in the face of a global pandemic. Governments and companies need to offer cutting edge technologies to help the response to COVID-19 that have privacy protections embedded. Simply put, privacy cannot be treated as a zero-sum game. — Lindsey Finch, EVP, Global Privacy & Product Legal

We can expect privacy by default as a competitive advantage, meaning that companies will compete in the privacy protections they offer their customers, particularly to help enterprises comply with the growing number of complex laws around the world.

Lindsey Finch, EVP, Global Privacy & Product Legal

Increased Government Surveillance and Regulation

I expect continued pressure on AI and other tech developers to account for how their technology is ultimately deployed by end users, such as for mass surveillance tools against minority communities, political dissidents, and other vulnerable populations. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen governments around the globe adopt more invasive surveillance measures in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 and manage social unrest, but many of these systems are biased against certain communities and may be less accurate than they claim to be. As we’ve seen throughout history, once governments are given these increased powers and capabilities, it’s extremely difficult to roll back.

On the other side of that coin, we can expect to see continued moves — in the United States and around the world — to regulate the tech industry, including privacy and laws governing the use of various AI systems. — Rachel Gillum, Director of Ethical and Humane Use

Ethical Tech: A United Responsibility

Ethical tech is everyone’s responsibility. Currently, it’s often limited to a small group of experts who can’t possibly always reach every corner of a company. Every professional needs basic fluency in ethics. Ethics should be required studies for every engineering, design, and business student. Making ethics a core competency will take a lot of learning and a lot of mistakes will be made. What matters most is how we support people in turning these pitfalls into progress. This is a time for courageous leadership. — Kat Holmes, SVP UX & Product Design

This is a time for courageous leadership. People will increasingly choose to do business based on a company’s ethical fortitude in developing and deploying products. They will want to know how a company treats the people that it serves, as well as the people that it employs.

Kat Holmes, SVP UX & Product Design 

Takeaway

In order to truly innovate and build a culture of ethical, responsible technology we’ll need to continue to embrace vulnerability and each challenge as a learning opportunity. Learn more about our commitment to the Ethical Use of Technology, and how you can build AI responsibly.