3rd June 2016 | By Grainne |
The following is the text of a short address given at the Trinity Global Business Forum on the 26th May 2016. The panel was asked to focus on ethical dilemmas for business leaders. I presented some thoughts on the dilemmas of the future brought about by technology, but many of these things are probably not that far into the future. I will follow this up with some thoughts on the ethical dilemmas that the changing nature of work and climate change will bring.
The sheer pace of change, advances in technology development and political, social and environmental disruption will create major ethical challenges that many don’t even foresee. We’re getting into Donald Rumsfeld territory here with known unknowns and unknown unknowns but we need business leaders who actively embrace thinking about the unknowns. I want to touch on just some of the challenges that technology is going to bring. The value that technology adds to our lives is accompanied by downsides which I think most of us recognise (always on and connected to the office for instance) and future technology has future downsides we may not have anticipated.
The Sharing Economy
For example the enablement of the sharing economy through technology has allowed many people to generate new income streams. Think of the likes of Uber or Airbnb. We see the most popular enablers growing in power to the degree that they pretty much own that space without huge investment in staff or capital assets. Airbnb is probably the largest hotelier in the world but doesn’t own any bedrooms or employ any staff to clean those bedrooms. These businesses often find themselves in an unknown regulatory space as legal systems lag innovation. And maybe suffer a backlash from a society concerned about disruption to established business models.
Use of Personal Data
There is hardly a day goes by without some kind of news report revolving around concerns about the data held by companies and data breaches. Most businesses now hold a rake of personal data. Some businesses are built on the use of personal data. The opportunity to have medical therapy personalised and targeted to my genetic make-up to offer the best potential outcome is amazing. The use of that genetic information by a bank deciding whether they will give me a mortgage – not so good perhaps. Are we prepared to sacrifice the genetically less fortunate to benefit the greater wellbeing and affordability of insurance, health care and property for others?
Lack of Common Standards
To get the best out of technological advances we need common standards and a shared viewpoint on the best way to proceed, to be globally on the same page so to speak. The difficulty is that we are not. Utterly different approaches to issues of privacy and risk on just either side of the Atlantic make decisions for business more difficult. This is illustrated by the current difficulties over the negotiation of Privacy Shield (or Privacy figleaf as it was referred to by Karlin Lillington of the Irish Times). Really thinking through privacy issues and how they might affect or be affected by our businesses is crucial. It’s not just about what is legal. It also should be about what is right and what fits with the values of our organisation.
What is Acceptable Risk?
How do we decide what is safe and what constitutes acceptable risk? Again we find differing attitudes make a global agreement on the correct course of action impossible. The precautionary principle relied upon in European law – if there is a potential for risk to people or the environment we should avoid it, guilty until proven innocent as it has sometimes been described – is at odds with the innocent until proven guilty focus in the US. There it is prove to us that something is harmful before we ban it. To most of us the precautionary principle may seem very sensible but we also need to consider that an over reliance on the precautionary principle may hold us back from the advances that we most need to solve big global problems.
Artificial Intelligence and Effect on Society
The rise of Artificial intelligence, an era of robots who work and think for us sounds like science fiction but is already happening. One of the obvious consequences is the elimination of jobs currently done by humans. Earlier this year academics predicted at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that advances in automation were likely to result in mass unemployment across many industries. For example they predict that driving will be fully autonomous within 25 years. That means many transport workers will become surplus to requirements. Self-drive vehicles also affect many other industries such as insurance, crash repairs, signage manufacturers and bring new challenges in determining liability for accidents and injury. This is just one small example with some obvious knock on impacts. Business leaders will be required to dig deep on the issues they create and the issues created for them by new technology.
A polarisation of jobs is predicted: some high-skilled workers being very much in demand because it is still too difficult for robots to do their work and some people left in very low skill jobs because it’s simply too expensive to replace them with robots leaving a redundant middle. We have the potential for a chunk of middle grade workers left behind and unable to provide for themselves and massive inequality in society. So businesses could choose to automate and while this could help cut costs, offer better returns to shareholders and better prices to consumers, can the firm maintain its social licence to operate in communities devastated by unemployment? It’s easy to talk of re-skilling but much harder to do effectively to enable these abandoned workers participate in the new economy.
What Can Business Leaders Do?
Business leaders need to consider the fine line their businesses tread between developing useful new products and services and the potential for future harm. Bring the best science to the decisions made in the boardroom and ensure a broad range of views is considered. Be open to opposing views. Seek to hear the uncomfortable and the bad news. Listen to the dissenters within your organisation and those outside who criticise your organisation. They may be your greatest allies in helping you predict problems coming down the line. Weeding out bias when considering new business developments can be extraordinarily difficult so we rely on business leaders to ask the hard questions of a broad range of people.