Digital Transformation and the Ethics of AI

by | Mar 31, 2021 | The Ethics of AI

Credit : Mikko Mäkelä

1937 – Elektro – Joseph M. Barnett

We – at Kaira Clan – can help you to define that playbook so you will not find yourself pointing and looking the other way while users, law and ethics will remain ignored under an increasingly harder to swallow allegation of “we did not know it was so bad”.

There are many articles about intentionally addictive User Experiences and Interfaces (UX/UI), one of my favorites is “Designing For Addiction: The Enemy of Product Innovation” from Ron Sparks. In his article Ron highlights:

Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, shared Facebook’s early leadership thinking: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker continues:“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Designing For Addiction: The Enemy of Product Innovation

Digital Transformation meets Artificial Intelligence

Just like the European Commission GDPR law became the worldwide de facto blueprint for international business decisions on privacy and security; we are witnessing these days the inception of an even deeper and impactful regulation that will reshape the ongoing digital transformation of the entire’s planet economy.

Digital Transformation can be defined as the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements – says Salesforce.

Hence we can agree that the most relevant companies in this relatively new space would be the ones capturing and influencing the customer’s attention. That seems to be the epicenter of the transformation. Right?

Deal. Then we can accept that by that metric the most relevant big tech companies would be those making money directly out of the user’s attention.

Artificial Intelligence meets Business Model

That – making money out of the user’s attention – is the definition of Social Media companies business model. Nothing but a rephrasal of the already old adagio: “if something is free then you are the product”. Quick quiz: when do you think this sentence was said for the first time? Click to find out. Hint: it is much older than many think.

Maybe it was not so obvious when they started but over the years they have been turning from good samaritans giving free chocolate to the kids into some sort of free riders of our time. Nowadays they are cruising at highway speed and the time to pay the toll has come. They are addicted to our addiction to their infowalls: fueling data-nicotine into our brains we owe them our attention while they bias our decisions. We know it and we do not even want to scapegoat them. That is also the definition of an addict.

That means that the kids from the Valley have grown and completed their transformation from trading assets and services traders to owning the marketplace of our minds.

But we volunteer for all this!

Their business has also become our business model. Let’s be honest. Nobody in the digital economy denies the value of crunching the numbers to understand users’ behaviour and extract value out of it. Directly or indirectly we have all – in the tech business space – benefitted and embraced this practice. We are all invited to sing some mea culpa here.

And this is the reason why last week the US Congress has been interviewing for five hours the CEOs from the biggest companies Social Media companies, which happen to be, most of them, US based.

Over the course of those hours the CEOs from the biggest big tech – shall we call them big data companies – have been roasted by congresswomen and congressmen from both sides of the alley. This unusual alignment between republicans and democrats suggests that these big data fellows are running from friends. If GDPR spread nicely all around the globe then I would bet that we can expect a similar success for whatever output from these proceedings.

Let’s face it: Big data companies are the new tobacco companies and we did not even need a 60 minutes whistleblower to get here.

This is only the beginning: as ubiquitous as smartphones and GSM connection might be, we are living the early days Digital Transformation – that has barely started – is not only because we have all now access to high speed networks in the palm of our hands. That is nothing but a technical breakthrough. An achievement that pales when we compare it to the capability of capturing humans’ attention by systematically and autonomously delivering content that is being not only selected but also created, in real time, for each and every one of us.

Let that sink in.

Tobacco companies never posed a threat to the status quo. I mean to the entire status quo. There never was a “tobacco economy”. But the Digital Transformation is different. A parallel model of our entire economy has born through mitosis. The cell has splitted into two and the new twin is about to inhale its predecessor: the digital transformation is starting to look more like a digital cannibalization process.

Even if we are in the early stages of such transformation it is already clear that the power is already unevenly distributed.

Think of this blog post: I am writing in on Google Docs and the auto-complete functionality is constantly completing my sentences. I am not talking about completing words but suggesting the next 3 to 4 words I might have in mind. Spooky as it is, this Google’s AI is nailing it. It successfully reads my mind and phrase after phrase I found myself pressing tab more often than I am comfortable to admit.

Perhaps – if you have been watching the Westworld TV show – I have been visiting a Delos Corporation amusement park unknowingly. That would be one way to explain why I am so predictable. Perhaps my screen time at Google and other big tech companies services is the real life equivalent of Delos’ parks where AI powered hosts are learning from their human guests what does it mean to be human

… but let’s go back to the US Congress: the aftermath of the public hearings in the US is still making ripples in the media but all the headlines revolve around freedom of speech and misinformation (aka fake news). My Radar for Conceptual Dark Matter ACMETM has not stopped buzzing after a deep dive scrolling through the Social Media most celebrated, liked, quoted and reshared tweets, posts and videos.

It would not have been so obvious to me that the hole in their walls has a very specific shape if I was not attending an online course by the University of Helsinki on the Ethics of AI; then my ACME radar would have remained silent in the screaming absence of the source of all the almighty power fueling these big data companies success. I am talking about Ethical AI – or better said – the absence of an Ethical AI.

In case you missed it you might want to have a look at this 2019 research report by the European Commission: the first point of their guidelines to update the existing legislation is all about Ethical AI.

US Congresswomen and Congressmen seemed completely unaware of what is the subject that requires regulation. What are we talking about here? What is the plutonium and the kryptonite of these CEOs and their companies?

The questions should not be what Zuckerberg could have done or not to fight fake news or foregin governments interference.

The question is if they have been knowingly using – and abusing – AI based algorithms to keep their audiences captive regardless of the content or any other considerations. Questions addressing issues such us if it is morally or ethically correct to turn people into information junkies no matter the consequences for individuals and societies but only how bigger our bottom lines will look like and how pleased our shareholders will be?

As bad as it sounds we must admit that in the absence of regulations we should not expect anything better from anonymous and soulless organisations which only exist to beat their competitors by using the fastest car available.

A toxic behaviour? So was – still is – the tobacco business.

It is unavoidable to build a parallelism between Zuckerberg and all the big data CEOs shrinking their shoulders when asked by the Congressmen these days vs the tobacco industry managers pretending they did not know their smokes were that addictive.   

If you are about to embrace Digital Transformation and you do not want to end up in a public hearing perhaps is a good time to start thinking about how and what Ethical AI initiatives you can kick start today.