Strategy

The Ethics of Digital Labor

In the intelligent automation age, when technology can think like humans, companies need to consider the impact on employees, customers and society.

Digital labor is already transforming the workplace. Advanced software that can mimic many human functions—including reasoning and learning—can now automate 45 percent of what Americans currently do at work.

But that raises profound ethical questions. Should companies actually automate all those jobs? What would the displaced workers do? And what impact would intelligent automation have on the economy and society as a whole?

Those are some of the key questions that businesses are being forced to grapple with right now. Fortunately, this is not the first time they’ve had to face such issues. Within the last century, rapid advances in technology have eliminated entire industries while creating new ones, displacing many workers but offering vast new opportunities to others.

Learn more about the potential impact of intelligent automation on a company’s values and ethics.

The key is in how companies use these new technologies and how they approach the ethical dilemmas. In the case of machine learning and artificial intelligence, businesses don’t always have to replace workers. Instead, they can use the new technology to work alongside humans and improve what they already do. That allows companies to take advantage of digital labor while minimizing the disruption to employees and society as a whole.

To guide them, however, companies need an ethical compass. Every decision about intelligent automation should weigh the potential impact on employees, suppliers, customers, and public perception. Companies also need to evaluate how it might affect the environment, the communities where they do business and the world economy.

So how can companies be smart—and ethical—about digital labor? While the bottom line is still important, businesses need to re-evaluate their goals, culture and core values. Here are some guidelines to help reset your ethical compass for dealing with intelligent automation.

Hold ethics discussions. Have frank conversations within the company about the potential impact of each decision to automate. A recent survey found that 83 percent of professional investors are more likely to buy stock in companies well known for social responsibility, believing these companies are lower-risk investments.

Update core values. Making tough decisions about intelligent automation will force companies to re-examine their values. That could mean fundamental changes in how the business operates.

Evaluate decision-making. Examine how the company makes tough decisions such as deciding which operations to close and which products and services to develop.

Embed core values in the technology. Artificial intelligence and data can have bias that can contradict your core values and beliefs. A bank’s loan system could misunderstand accents or dialects and deny loans, for example.

Set up an ethics panel. Knowing the complexity of intelligent automation, many companies establish an ethics committee or board that typically includes outside experts.

Track the impact of automation. Many organizations create a Center of Excellence to manage governance. More important is establishing programs for employees to learn how to work with new technologies.

Participate in forums. Become a member of a nonprofit organization that strives to make sure artificial intelligence benefits society.

Get involved in education. Help make sure the next generation learns the skills needed to work with the new technology.

Update cybersecurity. New safeguards are needed to prevent hackers from teaching your cognitive technology to commit fraud, mislead and steal. Artificial intelligence can also be programmed to detect and deter such threats.

Experts are divided on whether artificial intelligence will ultimately benefit society—or end up destroying it. Business leaders need to understand the crucial role they will play in making sure the intelligent automation is used the right way.

Read our full report on how intelligent automation is impacting business ethics.

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