Imagine embarking on a fantastic journey with a high-tech machine, designed to traverse the uncharted territory of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As time progresses, however, you notice small patches of rust appearing on your machine. You ignore them, busily focusing on speed and progress. Over time, the rust spreads. You spend some time and money patching it up, but it grows, compromising integrity until everyone on board starts to wonder if the wheels are going to fall off. This is ‘ethical debt’ – a corrosive force that, if left unchecked, can cripple innovation.
Decoding Ethical Debt
Ethical debt is the mounting burden of undiscovered risk and unresolved moral dilemmas that appear when we design, develop, and deploy AI systems without addressing ethical considerations adequately. Just like rust on a machine the patches start small, but without attention, these spread and weaken trust and confidence on a broader level. First for a system, then for a product or project, then spreading to undermine a whole strategy or even brand.
In the race to innovate and to be first-to-market, we might overlook these small spots of rust. The absence of robust ethical guidelines, insufficient expertise in making informed, intentional decisions within the business, and a failure to engage meaningfully with all stakeholders can exacerbate this corrosion.
The Consequences of Overlooking Ethical Debt
Failing to educating your organisation to understand the decisions that need making when using AI, enabling them to grapple with the dilemmas and trade-offs, and empowering them to make informed, intentional decisions introduces patches of doubt, uncertainty and unseen risk. Though they may start small, these can grow and become burdensome, ultimately stifling the innovation we aim to achieve as caution creeps in due to an increasingly apparent “elephant in the room” of unknown ethical risk.
Ethical debt is also technical debt. It represents future model retraining required, new versions rushed to market, workaround, recalls, unwinds and rework.
Finally, ignoring ethical debt can also erode trust in your AI systems, tarnishing your brand’s reputation. The potential for legal and regulatory repercussions can be costly and time-consuming. The societal implications, such as propagating biases or infringing on privacy, can be significant and far-reaching.
Act Now, Save Later
So, where do we start? By prioritising ethical considerations at the outset of AI development. Cultivate the expertise and culture to identify and navigate questions on these risks from the strategy through to individual use-cases. Engage with stakeholders – users, communities, experts – to identify potential moral issues and ensure diverse perspectives are incorporated into your AI systems. Give projects the time and ability to tackle questions of responsible use. The results will be products and services that delight customers, and processes that don’t make your team feel anxious.
The sooner we address these considerations, the less ethical debt we accumulate, the fewer negative outcomes we may face and the more confidence your organisation will have that they are making the right moves in AI. Addressing ethical debt isn’t just about preventing the rusting of our machine; it’s about ensuring our journey into the AI frontier is sustainable and beneficial for all.
It’s time to empower your organisation to make responsible AI a priority. By doing so, we ensure the machinery of progress we so carefully crafted doesn’t rust and crumble under the weight of our moral responsibilities.