The ethics of AI: why you need to embrace corporate digital responsibility

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There’s no denying the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is a boon for small business. New AI applications are transforming industries and improving daily routines.

AI-based tools like cookies, tracking pixels and facial recognition capture and integrate data from almost every customer interaction, giving small businesses information about consumer purchasing habits and potential market opportunities.

Tasks that were once onerous, laborious, and resource-intensive are faster, simpler and cheaper so employees can re-focus their time and talent towards more creative and complex activities.

However, we often overlook the ethical implications. It is crucial for small businesses to understand and address unique ethical dilemmas such as data disclosure, surveillance and privacy violations, biased and discriminatory outcomes, dehumanised services and disempowerment.

The ramifications of AI adoption can be reputationally and legally impactful. So, how can we protect customers without sacrificing the efficiencies and productivity gains that AI systems afford small businesses with stretched resources? 

What is Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR)?

The digital practices of all businesses – particularly those in the service sector – are increasingly under scrutiny. The relatively new concept of Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) shines a light on what businesses must do to be considered ethical and fair and to protect customers and suppliers across the value chain.

Establishing a strong CDR culture sets out how your business intends to protect data and technology and engage responsibly and ethically with your customers. Implementing good CDR practices may bring challenges and costs but it is important to persevere and prioritise digital responsibility, focusing on the long-term benefits for the business and your stakeholders.

1. Privacy and protection

Customer privacy and data protection must be at the forefront of business operators’ minds to safeguard the vast streams of customer data accessed and used by new digital technologies. For example, Amazon sharing private camera footage from its Ring smart doorbell with government agencies or Facebook sharing WhatsApp user data with advertising partners violate these policies. To build trust and CDR credibility, you must be transparent about how customer data is used.

2. A united front

It is crucial to establish company-wide norms so everyone – from digital developers to frontline employees – can understand and embrace the CDR standards they must uphold. Embedding and explaining acceptable CDR standards will create a sustainable culture of responsibility and trust that benefits your customers, employees and the business.

3. The balance of power

To avoid CDR non-compliance issues as a small business operator, you must strive for a fair and balanced power dynamic across your business networks. To reduce conflict and friction among business partners, look to industry codes of conduct, current regulations or external not-for-profit auditing groups to establish shared CDR principles.

4. Tyranny of trade-off

The reluctance to employ good CDR principles often stems from business operators deciding to trade off good CDR practices with firm objectives. In other words, cost versus profit. For example, capturing and using your customer data can create sales opportunities, and automating customer service processes can cut costs and boost profit but both practices also carry CDR risks related to privacy, fairness, transparency and discrimination. Regulators may need to step in and take action against any business that continues to cross the CDR line.

Looking ahead

While new technologies such as AI can be labelled ‘disruptive’, humans remain the key to shaping, guiding and self-regulating this disruptive force. As technology and AI become increasingly ingrained into our everyday lives, issues relating to ethics, privacy and fairness will continue to amplify.

Now is the time for business leaders to apply a human touch to a complex business situation and implement positive CDR practices – grounded in fairness, good judgement and ethical decision-making – to protect the interests of customers, employees and the business itself.