Ethics, Innovation, and the Era of Unintended Consequences

In March of 2016, Microsoft unveiled an exciting innovation to the world: Tay, a bot powered by artificial intelligence (AI), which was, according to Microsoft, designed to “engage and entertain through casual and playful conversation” on social media sites such as Twitter, Snapchat, and Kik Messenger.Before the launch, Microsoft noted that Tay was designed as not only a tool for entertainment, but also a means to better understand conversational AI.

But within just 16 hours of going live, Tay morphed from a chirpy teen-esque bot tweeting messages such as “humans seem pretty cool” to posting terrifying statements espousing Nazism and white supremacy. Microsoft was forced to shut it down almost immediately after it went live, saying simply that the bot “needed some adjustments.”

Although it’s safe to assume that Microsoft neither intended nor expected Tay to behave in the way it did, it wasn’t the first (or last) time that the dark side of AI was on full display. Yet for many innovators within emerging technology, these examples of machine learning (ML) and AI gone wrong are considered exceptions to the rule — products of bad design or user error rather than indicators of a dangerous pattern. Even today, many leaders in technological innovation appear to turn a blind eye to the missteps of their peers.

But as these errors become more frequent and high-profile — and digital consumers become more critical of technology’s role in societal discord — leaders in the tech industry and beyond would be wise to reconsider the ways in which innovation is shaping humanity’s future.


Coding our Future

At last month’s FWD summit, Laurie Segall, Senior Technology Correspondent for CNNMoney and keynote speaker, touched on this new reality. “We have entered an era of unintended consequences,” she said during her address. “That’s an incredibly important era for tech leaders and for people in this room and for anyone who’s coding our future.”

Her statements made us wonder: In the day and age of lightning-fast innovation and technological growth, how are business leaders not only controlling for these unintended consequences but also actively choosing to make society better through their innovations? How are we as a society ensuring that technology will continue to advance in benefit of us rather than in spite of us?

For Ninveh Neuman, VP of Global Marketing and Digital Business Transformation for Rockwell Automation, leaders have an enormous responsibility in the era of unintended consequences. “It’s not just about the business need and the next offering that you’re going to provide to the market,” she said at FWD. “It’s also about the environment, the culture . . . and communication outside to the market or internally to the people you need to get on board. That’s really important to connect the head and heart.”

To Ninveh’s point, business leaders today cannot simply assume that their teams feel empowered to steer innovation in the direction of positive social change. Now more than ever, leaders have a greater responsibility to their teams to empower them to succeed in ways that make sense for not only their organizations, but also society as a whole.

At the culmination of her talk, she put it simply: “Leaders cannot be truly successful if they put themselves first. It’s our job as leaders to really walk the walk, talk the talk, set the tone.”


Human-Centered from the Inside Out

Todd Connor, CEO and founder of Bunker Labs at 1871, shared Ninveh’s perspective on the importance of leadership for social responsibility. Inspired by his experience as a military veteran who struggled to find meaningful employment in civilian society, Todd launched Bunker Labs to connect vets with professional opportunities — a mission he believes business leaders can learn from.

“We have a choice about how broad our [professional] circle is. Can it be people that we haven’t met yet? Can it be young people in the city of Chicago looking for an opportunity? Can it be people of a different race? My argument to you is that the broader that circle is, the more talent you’re going to find,” said Todd during his FWD address. He urged attendees to foster inclusion within their organizations and allow greater diversity to lead and ultimately steer innovation toward the greater good.

Of course, it’s not just what happens within an organization that can champion diversity and social growth — it’s often the innovations themselves. Just consider the perspective of Reena Jana, Head of Product Inclusion at Google, who leads ML and AI research and development processes that hinge on user feedback and collaboration.

“Our mission since [Google] was founded 20 years ago has always been about organizing the world’s information and making it universally useful and accessible,” she said. “We’re taking the notion of fun and engaging in-game experiences to involve anyone in creating better machine learning and AI experiences.”


The Bigger Picture

What can business leaders learn from these social success stories within the context of digital innovation? Simply put, technology cannot live in a vacuum. Rather, it is the responsibility of organizations at the cutting edge of innovation to make a concerted effort to not only include, but also listen to, the people those innovations will affect.

Now more than ever, innovators who do not consider the bigger picture — and don’t expand their circle to include the people whose lives their innovations will affect — are gambling with more than just their businesses. At the intersection of humanity and technology, innovators must respect the ways in which they ultimately influence modern society as a whole.

The days when industry leaders could live by the “move fast and break stuff” mantra without consequences are long gone. Today’s consumers demand more from those leading the way in the Digital Age, and leaders who overlook the greater societal good do so at their peril.

Missed by FWD talk? Watch it here