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Create company culture of ethics in technology

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer
Johannesburg, 10 Oct 2023
The University of Pretoria’s Dr Hanlie Smuts and Dr Lizette Weilbach.
The University of Pretoria’s Dr Hanlie Smuts and Dr Lizette Weilbach.

The importance of ethics in technology is seeing renewed hot debate, with artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, under the global spotlight since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the AI-powered large language chatbot, at the end of last year.

Dr Hanlie Smuts, associate professor at the Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria, and Dr Lizette Weilbach, a senior lecturer in the Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria, have researched ethics in technology, and packaged some of their findings for ITWeb readers.

“We live in a ubiquitous computing world transformed by the evolution of digital technologies. The growing application of digital technologies resulted in a highly-integrated cyber-physical space. A key enabler to the viability of cyber-physical systems is the availability of data and the extraction of value from data. Inevitably, data-driven organisations apply data for their decision-making, rather than intuition,” they comment.

“One of the key demands of the cyber-physical world is the need to provide safety and security for such systems. Through digital transformation, organisations integrate technology into business processes, products and services, emphasising potential ethical considerations.

“These considerations include aspects such as how organisations use information, how employees are engaged and empowered to be able to deal with ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day work, how organisations manage resources and how they approach sustainability,” Dr Smuts andDr Weilbach state.

Based on their analysis of key concepts of ethics in technology, the academics provide 10 principles and checkpoints to support organisations to navigate the world of computer, cyber, robot and human ethics.

Computer (internet) ethics

1. Be ethically-driven from the start: Organisations need to be proactive and stay at the forefront of potential ethical technology challenges. From the start, organisations need to design technology-driven products and services with ethical principles in mind. This can assist them to anticipate and avoid situations, rather than being reactive after the effect.

2. Embrace an ethical technical technology mindset: Ethical technology recognition, awareness and decision-making frameworks should not only be perceived as a compliance or policy action, but should be inherent to the organisation’s fabric. Adoption of the technology disruption vocabulary and syntax is not sufficient; companies should be aware of the ethical decision-makers’ role regarding technology disruptors.

3. Create a culture of shared responsibility: Engage all functions and champion it from the top. Leaving shared responsibility to a few teams or departments, promotes the impression that the whole organisation is not required to consider it. Companies need to be able to distinguish the ethical issues technology disruption may introduce and apply consistent means of pinpointing ethical courses of action. By promoting a culture that supports these courses of action, ethical decision-making will be endorsed.

4. Ensure an approach that can evolve: Approaches to ethical technology in organisations should be assessed and revised as needed due to the unpredictable and rapid way in which technology is evolving. Policies developed in recent years may no longer directly address current risks based on the rate at which markets are changing, Companies must therefore develop policies and frameworks to guide technology decisions, with the expectation that they will likely require adjustment and adaptation as markets evolve and technologies change.

5. Equip employees with the resources to respond: Employees, teams and departments should have the resources they require to make ethical decisions regarding technology. It is therefore important that organisations provide employees with applicable resources, assets and tools. These resources will assist employees to recognise ethical dilemmas, to appraise alternatives, to make and to test ethical technology decisions.

Cyber ethics

6. Moral use of data and resources: Data is of great value in refining product offerings and implementing new marketing strategies. However, such strategies can also be invasive in terms of privacy, highlighting many ethical issues. To ensure data is not leaked or used inappropriately, data protection measures and compliance procedures may be defined and applied in order to guide moral use of data.

7. Design the organisation for ethical technology: Ethical technology policies are not intended to replace business ethics or general compliance, but rather to strengthen them. Hence, avoid creating functional silos in the context of ethics or establish a separate, standalone ethics programme. Rather expand departments’ objectives to include ethical technology considerations. Encourage and teach employees to distinguish among professional ethics concerns, technology-related ethical issues and broader corporate matters.

Robot ethics (including AI ethics)

8. Responsible adoption of disruptive technologies: Digital growth is a business reality, yet such digital transformation should not cause ethical challenges. To ensure the technologies the business adopts have ethics considerations and protection in place, it should do due diligence prior to technology acquisition. Due diligence may be supported by the development of a guiding framework that is inclusive of technology use cases specific to the company and aligned to its culture.

Human ethics

9. Respect for employees and customers: Organisations that engage in good ethical technology practices, and understand that customers and employees are their greatest asset, maintain a strong moral sense of the rights of their employees and the protection of their customers. The value of data is therefore considered within a frame of responsible protection of employees and customers alike.

10. Make ethical technology part of a holistic, technology know-how approach: It is important the whole business recognises potentially technology-related ethical predicaments. Employees that are not directly involved with, or responsible for technology, must be trained and empowered to recognise ethical technology issues; even when these technology issues are less obvious. This may especially be important for less digitally transformed organisations, where the implications of technology for day-to-day operations are less obvious to employees.

About the research authors

Dr Hanlie Smuts has been an associate professor at the Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria, since 2017. Her lecturing and research role focuses on IT and the organisation, with particular emphasis on Society 5.0, digital transformation, big data management, artificial intelligence and knowledge management.

Dr Smuts is deputy chair of the Knowledge Management South Africa board and has published several papers and book chapters in her field of study.

Dr Lizette Weilbach is a senior lecturer in the Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria. She has 21 years of expertise in information systems analysis and design education within the realm of higher education. Over the course of her career, she has dedicated 14 years to instructing the Informatics Capstone project, which is designed to produce industry-ready graduates.

Dr Weilbach’s research primarily revolves around IT in education, with a strong focus on enhancing the pedagogy related to business and systems analysis. Additionally, she maintains a secondary research interest in IT and organisational dynamics, particularly concentrating on areas such as Society 5.0, disruptive technologies, and its impact on SMEs and innovation.