The ethical questions left unanswered when we all become tech firms - Dr Julie Nixon comment

“We are all becoming tech companies” is not a new declaration, but the likelihood of fiction becoming reality is starting to dawn on most of us.

Witness the dramatically shifting make-up of the world’s largest businesses. In 1975, 83 per cent of the S&P500’s assets were physical, tangible ones like buildings, equipment, cash, stock and land.

Fast-forward to today, and that make-up has inverted. Now, 90 per cent of company assets are intangible, like brand value, customer data, intellectual property, software and patents.

But how innocent is this shift, really?

'As the pace of innovation quickens, we must reflect on... how we implement technological change,' says Dr Nixon. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

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The lack of regulation around the use of technology in business opens up ethical questions for all companies, even entire nations.

While a lot of soul-searching and mirror-gazing has been seen by Big Tech in parliamentary select committee meetings and Congress summons, preventing ethical lapses in the use of tech is now a daily battle.

The 2021 NewVantage Partners survey asked 85 blue-chip, international businesses about their investment in, and use of Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI). It found universal acceptance: 99 per cent of firms reported active investment in these areas, and 91.9 per cent reported that the pace of investment was accelerating.

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It is so important to pause, Dr Nixon, senior associate at Morton Fraser, also says. Picture: contributed.

But while investment and adoption are commonplace already, some of the nuances around how tech has an impact on customers, staff and stakeholders are much less well-defined. In the same survey, less than one third have a well-articulated data strategy and only a quarter have managed to forge the right culture, creating a data-driven organisation.

In other words, the change is top-down, driven by investment in change but not yet integrated into day-to-day business.

Strong, ethical principles and watertight governance are more important than ever. But while introducing ethical safeguards to technology (for example by identifying biases in the data that drives AI) and insisting on governance measures to support teams are natural to large businesses, they are anathema to smaller ones.

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As the pace of innovation quickens, we must reflect on the implications of data usage and how we implement technological change. Large or small, our businesses are entering a mostly unregulated world.

For example, while a large company may have the resources and presence of mind to recruit people from diverse backgrounds into certain data-driven positions, smaller ones do not have the time or opportunity to prevent unconscious bias within their group from reinforcing their new technology’s bias.

It is also good practice to test and re-test your technology, to check for vulnerabilities and inaccuracies. Try telling that to an SME.

According to Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee, there are at least four areas linked to major internet platforms that need regulation: safety, privacy, competition, and honesty (by which he means removing opaque financial reporting).

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Safeguarding

Aren’t these same themes true of almost all technological advancements? So much change is coming so fast, and to the huge benefit of so many, that it is easy to forget to stop and ask whether it is safe; whether it protects privacy; whether it encourages competition; and whether it is fair.

The life sciences sector is the perfect petri dish for these searching questions. It has a huge capacity for technological change. It could well change the lives of citizens more than any other sector.

The pandemic caused a complete re-evaluation of the role of data and tech in solving major problems associated with Covid-19. This was a sector suddenly working hand-in-glove with governments, universities, industry bodies and regulators to collect and analyse data, helping to get to grips with the pace and variety of infections.

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It should be no surprise they were up to the task. In the same NewVantage study mentioned earlier, life sciences companies were twice as likely as finance firms to have built cultures ready to adapt to data and AI. And twice as likely to identify transformational business impacts from data. Two in three life sciences firms describe themselves as leaders in this field.

Beyond the narrow lens of Covid, in healthcare data is being drawn from electronic health records and curated to fit research objectives; and real-world evidence is being used to augment clinical trials where not enough data is available. The UK Government’s own UK Life Sciences Vision includes a plan to use the NHS as a source of real-world evidence and as a data-driven test bed for new technologies.

It is so important to pause.

Futurologist Ray Hammond helps us to envision healthcare in the coming decades. Imagine routine surgery being performed by a surgeon on a different continent, using blood generated inside your own body without the need for a donor, and medicine specifically designed to match your own DNA.

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Now imagine a lot of that information being stored on cards and databases, perhaps shared or even sold between financial institutions and healthcare providers. The impact on privacy is huge, even though the impact on wellbeing may also be positive.

But it’s not a pay-off everyone is willing to make. And healthcare is just one example.

Businesses would be wise to pay heed to this. As companies merge and technologies are bought, ultimate responsibility for data continues to be an ambiguous point for most organisations. The uses of data are there for all to see, but meanwhile the ethics of data float, unaccounted for, between departments.

Where to look for change?

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In China, the birthplace of many modern technological innovations, there has been a quickening of pace in the nation’s efforts to better balance ethical challenges with technological progress. Its central bank has been looking at systemic risks posed by the rise of fintech; it brought in new data privacy laws recently; its markets regulator is trying to put a dent in anti-competitive behaviours; and social issues like labour rights for taxi drivers are also being considered.

Indeed, it might be that China’s unique landscape, with its socialist goals and entrepreneurial and economic growth, could be a good place to find a blend between common purpose and commercial success.

The unanswered ethical questions that arise from the forthcoming tech shift should preoccupy businesses everywhere.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but also it will be the companies successfully bridging ethics and enterprise that benefit most in the future.

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Dr Julie Nixon WS., senior associate at Morton Fraser

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