- The Forum’s Responsible Use of Technology project has been underway for more than two years.
- Based on its work to-date, here are three predictions for the future of responsible technology.
- They include responsible investing, targeted regulations and incorporating tech ethics into higher education.
Over the past two years, the World Economic Forum – working in close collaboration with a diverse group of experts – has been working on advancing the field of ethics in technology. This project, titled Responsible Use of Technology, began when more than 40 leaders from government, civil society, and business, some with competing agendas, met in The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. This group agreed on the important goal of providing tools and techniques that leaders can use to operationalize ethics during the lifecycle of technology.
This multi-stakeholder project community has made the case for both human-rights-based and ethics-based approaches to the responsible use of technology, promoted the use of behavioural economics principles in organizational design to drive more ethical behaviour with technology, and highlighted techniques for responsible technology product innovation. As we move into this project’s third year, we have a few predictions about the future of responsible tech that we would like to share.
1. The rise of responsible investing in tech
When this project was conceived, the original intention was to provide practitioners with tools and techniques that they could use to create more ethical outcomes during the design, development, deployment and use of technology. One such technique is consequence scanning, which helps product managers, designers and developers identify upfront the potential intended and unintended consequences of a new product or feature.
However, as our society becomes more aware of the impact of technologies on human rights, leaders are looking at the earliest stages of technological innovation. They are beginning to ask whether investors are conducting ethics and human rights assessments of the start-ups they are investing in or incubating. A recent report published by Amnesty International reveals that none of the top-10 venture capital firms on the Venture Capital Journal’s top-50 list had adequate human rights due diligence policies in place when evaluating companies.
Our research has revealed that the vast majority of the world’s most influential venture capitalist firms operate with little to no consideration of the human rights impact of their decisions. With the stakes so high, investors need to embrace the idea of responsible investing in technology and commit to more robust human rights assessments in their due diligence process.
—Michael Kleinman, Director, Silicon Valley Initiative, Amnesty International / AIUSA
With human rights groups like Amnesty International putting a spotlight on this issue, along with the rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing and increased calls for stakeholder capitalism, we predict that there will be more progress in responsible investing in tech – especially in the venture capital space – in the coming years.
2. Targeted tech regulations: just the beginning
The year 2021 will be remembered in history as a pivotal year for tech regulation globally. Indeed, earlier this year, the European Commission (EC) released its Artificial Intelligence Act, a comprehensive regulatory proposal that classifies all AI applications under four distinct categories of risks (unacceptable risk, high-risk, limited risk and minimal risk) and introduces specific requirements for each of them. Evidence suggests that US regulators are also taking enforcement action against biased AI systems while federal lawmakers have proposed various regulations to regulate facial recognition.
Public sentiment is shifting in the US as well. In an April 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 56% of Americans professed support for more regulation of major technology companies versus 47% in June 2020. In China, regulators have recently launched a tech crackdown. The Chinese government released a document in August 2021 stating that authorities will actively promote legislation in areas such as national security, technology innovation and anti-monopoly. These regulatory activities are likely to intensify because of the growing demand for trusted technology solutions.
The days of technology companies operating in the ‘wild west’ are gone. Civil society and governments are beginning to hold companies accountable for how their products are deployed by end users, as well as the impact they can have on key societal processes and communities. We will continue to see a move toward government regulation disjointed across various markets. These changes are already impacting the way companies do business and executives need to keep these ethical and legal responsibilities top of mind.
—Rachel Gillum, Head of Global Policy, Ethical and Humane Use, Salesforce
We predict that future regulations will be more targeted towards specific technologies, industries, use cases, risk profiles and affected communities.
3. Tech ethics will be mandatory in higher education
Until recently, most students who studied computer science, electrical engineering, and data science could graduate without taking an ethics course. Universities that did offer technology ethics classes considered them as electives, not mandatory. This is unlike other disciplines such as law and medicine, which treat ethics as a key component of professional training. Most technologists in the workplace today were not even exposed to the social sciences or humanistic aspects of their future professions throughout their formal education. We believe this is going to change. As technology ethics issues continue to permeate public awareness, we predict that most universities will offer more courses on technology ethics and make them compulsory for students to graduate with degrees in technical fields.
Given computer scientists and engineers’ prime role in reshaping every facet of human life, higher education institutions are beginning to redesign how these disciplines are taught. Central to this rethinking is requiring ethical reasoning courses to force computer scientists and engineers to examine their ethical obligations to the societies their technologies impact on a daily basis.
—Will Griffin, Chief Ethics Officer, HyperGiant
Some companies are already mandating responsible technology training for all employees. Professional associations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are hosting conferences dedicated to technology ethics, and non-profit organizations such as the Responsible Artificial Intelligence Institute are stepping in by offering options for certifying the skills included in these trainings. We believe that most universities will soon follow suit.
With new technologies permeating more and more of our daily lives, the field of responsible technology is expanding. What might previously have been considered a function of the financial sector, like ethical investing practice, is increasingly viewed as part of the technology life cycle. Laissez-faire approaches to governance that enable the use and misuse of technology platforms are no longer tolerated. And educators in technical fields such as data science must grapple with interdisciplinary studies of ethics and law.
Indeed, in our work on the Responsible Use of Technology project, we have seen growing interest and participation in sectors from banking to food and beverage — reminding us that every company is now a technology company. The predictions outlined above demonstrate the ways in which disparate actors are beginning to come together to address issues of technology ethics. As the world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, it is a holistic and multi-pronged approach to governance that will enable communities to experience the benefits and avoid the harms of these new technologies.