Are ethics compatible with AI?
Ethics is a topic seldom addressed at retail industry forums and perhaps less often in discussions about high tech. So it was notable that a panel session was organized at the recent National Retail Federation Show, entitled, “Retailing Ethics in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”
Artificial Intelligence may be a current buzzword in retail technology, but the topics addressed by the panelists seemed relevant to almost any system that gathers and makes use of customer data.
“Companies seem mostly concerned about compliance aspects,” said Tenzin Priyadarshi, director of the ethics initiative at MIT Media Lab, a panelist. “My work is about ethics as optimization, that is, what does it mean for system to be ethical by design?”
Anindya Ghose, Heinz Reihl chair and professor of business at the NYU Stern School of Business, said he was concerned about avoiding accidental or intentional discrimination – a potential pitfall of personalization. “A.I. is like a tool that can be used to build or destroy,” he said.
Ethical practice requires that the system be fed data that is clean and unbiased in the first place, Mr. Ghose added. “Then it must also be used in the right way, which is much harder.”
“Ethical issues should be a part of the design,” said Francesca Rossi, AI ethics global leader and distinguished research staff member for IBM, another panelist. “Data should be curated to avoid bias, and we need to be transparent about who owns it, how you deal with it, and who is going to communicate with users.”
Mr. Priyadarshi, who is a Buddhist monk, expressed concerns about data privacy misuse, for which he sees “no immediate solution.” Where rules are tightly enforced in some countries, he warned, “Competitiveness will drive people to other countries to get it done.”
The panel touched on how the influence of A.I. empowered marketing systems can be powerful and lead consumers to behaviors that might be harmful such as over-consumption of some products.
Ms. Rossi proposed that the technology could be part of solutions that, “can be used to help consumers behave in a more ethical way.”
While the discussion raised more questions than answers, it touched on a checklist of issues that retailers may well use to guide their decisions when implementing A.I.:
- Compliance with Regulations – Does the system conform with relevant laws?
- Ethical Design of Systems – Are its capabilities rooted in ethical intention?
- Rules and Constraints on Systems – Is the system programmed to prevent misuse?
- Personal Data Privacy and Security – Does the system have effective protections built in?
- Assurance of Data Accuracy – Is data collection and management handled to prevent errors that could do harm?
- Transparency to Users – Can users easily understand how data about them is used?
- Avoidance of Bias or Discrimination – Are systems designed to treat individuals fairly?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does the retail industry place sufficient emphasis on ethical matters? Does technology make this better or worse? Can retailers maintain high ethical standards without sacrificing competitiveness?