Why AI ethics matter

As AI is used to generate more powerful business outcomes, the responsibility grows to meet ever-higher standards in its use, particularly regarding accountability, the potential for bias and permitted data use.  

As has been frequently noted, one downside of machine learning systems is that they can entrench existing bias in decision-making systems. Progress with these tools requires trust from both customers and employees that the right course of action is being taken. In our analysis, organizations that prioritize AI ethics positively outscore those that don’t on every single marker of employee well-being in our study, from employee safety to pay. We identified a “leader” cut of respondents, representing 14% of the respondent base, who believe that both AI and issues around trust and ethics will have a strong impact on the world of work over the next three years (see  methodology for complete details). We found that these leaders are the most likely to treat their workforce better and see employees not as a mere labor resource but for the value they bring to the organization (see Figures 5 and 6).  When asked to predict how the pandemic would impact their business and workforce over time, these leaders pointed to employee safety and job recognition as top factors. This cohort also expects to prioritize workforce safety (62% vs. 56% for non-leaders), and to value and pay their front-line workers more (64% vs. 57%). Over the medium term, COVID will force enterprises with an ethical mission to ask more strategic questions about undertaking fundamental aspects of these goals; in doing so, they will move further ahead in their competitive battles.

The notions of “business purpose” and the ethical use of AI, it should be noted, are frequently subject to critique from those who believe many organizations simply pay “lip service” to these ideas while doing very little to act on any other objective than improving the bottom line. This criticism notwithstanding, businesses do need to take purpose and ethics more seriously than ever before for one primary reason: the next generation of talent (the fabled digital natives) demands it. To appeal to younger generations of workers, businesses will need to make issues like diversity, inclusion, stakeholders, the environment, etc., central to their strategy. While it would be easy for leaders accustomed to prioritizing shareholder needs over those of employees to be cynical about this change, it would also be a serious mistake. The new agenda at the heart of the future of work requires businesses to step forward and lead a generation that wants change. AI talent – perhaps the most valuable talent on earth – will increasingly choose organizations that live up to ideals that are no longer idealistic but are the new standard operating procedure.

Organizations that prioritize AI ethics outscore those that don’t on every marker of employee well-being and workplace resilience in our study.

57%

of AI ethics leaders will increase supply chain resilience

vs.

49%

of all other respondents

64%

of AI ethics leaders will increase pay for essential workers

vs.

57%

of all other respondents

Organizations that ethically deploy AI score higher on all aspects of workplace and workforce strategy measures 

Respondents were asked whether they agree with the following statements about the likely impact of the pandemic on the business and workforce. (Percent of respondents who said they agree or strongly agree)


Figure 5 & 6


Response base: 4,000 total respondents; 575 “responsible AI implementers” Source: Cognizant Center for the Future of Work