20 June 2018
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Keep pressure on tech firms to compete on trust, ethics

Straits Times
10 Jun 2018
Lydia Lim

It is time moral qualities are duly considered in discussions on technologies and their impact

When I think of tech companies, the qualities that spring to mind are fast-moving, fiercely competitive, smart and cool - but not necessarily ethical.

So it is a surprise that several of the world's largest tech firms are increasingly speaking up about their moral qualities - their trustworthiness when it comes to protecting clients' data, for instance, or their inclusive approach towards spreading the gains from the digital economy.

This global trend was on display at Singapore's Smart Nation Innovations event, held last week at Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

Delivering the keynote address last Tuesday, Mr Caesar Sengupta, Google vice-president for The Next Billion Users, emphasised technology's goodness. "I see some of you are thinking: Okay. Google wants to tell me that tech is good. No surprise there. I confess I really do want to tell you that technology is good. Not benign, not neutral, not depending on how it's used, but tech is good," he said.

He then told four stories about how Google's technology has changed lives and businesses for the better, including one on Google's Railwire Wifi which made it possible for Shrinath, a railway porter from Kerala, to study for and ace the Kerala Public Service Commission exam and secure his dream job as a Village Assistant.

On artificial intelligence, Mr Sengupta said two years ago, Google open-sourced TensorFlow, their machine learning framework, to power the shift to artificial intelligence. "We believe AI should be available to everyone, because we know that good things happen when everyone is included," he said.

Taking the lead on the issue of data protection was Ms Harriet Green, chairman and chief executive of IBM Asia-Pacific, who stressed during a panel discussion on Transforming Nations and Cities the responsibility tech firms have to safeguard clients' data.

IBM, which specialises in products and services for enterprises, is clear that the data they access in the course of business belongs to the client, she said, adding: "We don't mine it, extrapolate from it, use it to build a huge knowledge graph and sell it to others for profit. And we only extract insights from the data with the explicit agreement of clients."

In this data-driven era, she said it is "critical" that governments choose "the right partner to work with", in their bid to build smart nations and cities.

Data protection has been a hot topic since March, when Facebook was hit by a privacy scandal after media reports that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed the social network's users' data, to build profiles on American voters and influence the 2016 presidential election. And Facebook remains in the hot seat as news broke last week of its data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including manufacturing giant Huawei which has been declared a national security threat by the US.

The upside of extensive reporting on these cases is increased public awareness of data privacy issues and pressure on tech firms to better protect users' data.

Last month, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation(GDPR) came into effect, a robust law that aims to give users more control and choice over how their personal data is gathered, stored and used. But while GDPR is important, some like Mr John Taysom, a data and privacy expert quoted in the Financial Times, argue that what may prove more significant is the way companies such as Microsoft and Apple are now pushing data protection as a source of competitive advantage.

I agree that doing right as a competitive advantage is a more sustainable way to keep tech firms on the straight and narrow than relying on any inbuilt moral compass that they may or may not have. After all, these firms are nothing if not competitive, and hate the thought of their rivals getting ahead of them.

I had a taste of how their competitive instinct trumps social welfare concerns when I took part in a panel discussion on AI at Bash. That's short for Build Amazing Startups Here, a large start-up space in Ayer Rajah Crescent. True to form, the other two panellists - being start-up founders - waxed lyrical about the amazing stuff they planned to do with IoT technology and AI.

AI refers to technologies which attempt to simulate human intelligence and thinking processes like learning, reasoning and problem solving. This is done through software algorithms which let machines "learn" for themselves from vast amounts of data.

Towards the end of the discussion, I expressed my concern that rapid development and deployment of AI might result in vulnerable members of society being left behind. I suggested possibly slowing the pace of change to give people time to adjust.

My fellow panellists did not agree, and an engineer in the audience asked why I thought any company with an edge in AI would slow down when none of their competitors were doing so. Sitting there surrounded by tech professionals, I felt naive for entertaining such a thought.

That was a year ago. Today, I am glad to see a growing momentum among some members of the public and governments to hold tech firms to account for their actions, by demanding that they be both responsible and ethical. This movement needs to grow and spread until tech firms are convinced that virtuous behaviour gives them an edge, and doing right becomes part of their corporate culture.

Along with that, governance models must keep pace with the speed of change, said Mr Murat Sonmez who also spoke at Smart Nation Innovations(SNI) week. The Head of the World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution warned that the slow pace of processes defining governance models meant societies risked ending up operating in the "too late zone".

"We need to think and act quickly," he said, adding that the WEF centre he heads wants to lay the foundations for a new, global operating system that will help delineate the rights and responsibilities of different stakeholders.

The work is part of efforts to ensure that this new phase of civilisation is human-centric, benefiting not just the privileged few and driven not by the imperatives of technological development, but serving all of society, he added.

Singapore will set up an Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data - a welcome step in the right direction. Announcing it at SNI, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said: "Innovative technologies bring economic and societal benefits, as well as attendant ethical issues. Thus, good regulation is needed to enable innovation by building public trust."

The AI council will be led by Senior Counsel V. K. Rajah, a former attorney-general. He also sits on the 10-member Fairness, Ethics, Accountability and Transparency Committee formed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in April, which is developing a guide on the responsible and ethical use of AI and data analytics by financial institutions.

It is about time ethics receive due consideration in discussions on technologies and their impact on society. And I look forward to the day when no tech company can afford to be unethical, because to do so would be to cede ground to the competition.

I agree that doing right as a competitive advantage is a more sustainable way to keep tech firms on the straight and narrow than relying on any inbuilt moral compass that they may or may not have. After all, these firms are nothing if not competitive, and hate the thought of their rivals getting ahead of them.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.