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BusinessDay: Ethics and innovation — balancing AI advances with core values

By Johan Steyn, 17 April 2024

In an era in which artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer a distant possibility but a pervasive reality, enterprises stand at a crucial crossroads. The intersection of ethics and technological advancement poses unique challenges for leaders aiming to harness AI's potential without compromising their core values. 

As AI technologies, especially generative AI (GenAI), become integral to competitive advantage, the discourse around ethics has intensified, often becoming a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone to innovation.

Historically, the commercial promise of AI has been undeniable. With CEOs worldwide acknowledging that those at the forefront of GenAI adoption are poised for a competitive edge, the urgency to integrate AI into business operations has never been higher. However, this enthusiasm is tempered by a notable ethical dilemma. Data from an IBM event in London reveals a paradox: three-quarters of CEOs recognise the advantages of GenAI, yet an equal proportion are prepared to sideline these benefits due to ethical concerns.

The heart of the issue lies not in the ethical considerations themselves — which are vital — but in how they are perceived and integrated into the AI governance framework. There is a burgeoning realisation that ethics, accuracy, and transparency, though interrelated, serve distinct functions in the realm of AI.

Accuracy and transparency are intrinsic machine capabilities, essential for evaluating AI performance and understanding its decision-making processes.

Ethics, however, operate on a different plane. They reflect the values and principles that guide human behaviour, shaping how technology is developed, deployed and governed.

This clearer understanding highlights a big mistake in how AI is now managed: mixing up ethics with how well the AI works. This mix-up not only makes things confusing but also accidentally creates a fear of using AI. Companies get caught in this confusion, not knowing how to deal with ethical issues without losing out on what AI can offer. This leads to a worrying situation where being overly cautious about ethics could stop AI progress before it gets going.

Addressing this challenge requires a paradigm shift. Enterprise leaders must recognise that ethics cannot be hard-coded into AI; these are human principles that must govern the development and use of technology, not attributes of the technology itself. Unlike a machine’s capacity for accuracy or transparency, ethics are fluid, context-dependent, and evolve over time. Today’s ethical standards may not align with those of tomorrow, making the task of embedding these principles into AI both risky and potentially short-sighted.

The solution lies in a deliberate separation of ethical considerations from the technical governance of AI. This distinction allows enterprises to maintain their ethical compass while still leveraging AI’s operational benefits. It shifts the narrative from one of hindrance to one of empowerment, where ethical leadership not only aligns with but also enhances technological innovation.

This separation paves the way for a more strategic approach to AI partnerships and investments. Enterprises are increasingly keen to align with partners that share their ethical values, especially on pivotal issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion. In doing so, they not only uphold their ethical standards but also cultivate an ecosystem that fosters mutual growth and innovation.

This alignment between ethics and business strategy underscores that ethical considerations are not mere regulatory checkboxes but foundational elements of corporate identity and competitive differentiation.


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