Written by IEEE | September 18, 2019   |   Updated: December 15, 2020

IEEE Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Steve Welby spoke to the Tallinn Digital Summit on the importance of collaborative ethical design in today’s most ubiquitous technologies.

Intelligent and autonomous systems are increasingly pervasive in everyday life. With each passing week, we hear more about machine learning, self-driving vehicles and a wide array of self-reliant devices. And in many of these conversations, a core note is the positive impact these systems are having on scientific progress, economic growth and our quality of life.

But these powerful tools can also present social, legal and ethical challenges related to perceptions of systemic risk, data transparency, privacy, ownership, and agency. One of the 17 conclusions from 2018’s Tallinn Digital Summit was that there should be a collective effort to “build trust in artificial intelligence” to help address these concerns.

So how can organizations continue to foster innovation while maintaining public trust? IEEE Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Steve Welby, who is an IEEE Fellow, explored this issue during a recent address at the 2019 Tallinn Digital Summit, a two-day inter-governmental gathering where political leaders, policy innovators, entrepreneurs, and the tech community focused on the biggest digital transformation questions facing economies, societies, and governments.

In his speech, Welby noted that an interesting paradox has emerged wherein people around the world are increasingly dependent on autonomous technologies, yet are increasingly distrustful of them.  “Per the 2019 Edelman Trust in Technology Study, globally 47 percent of people said that technological innovation is happening too quickly and is leading to changes that are not in their best interests,” Welby said.

As an unintended consequence, Welby warned that “these issues can be obstacles to the socially responsible development and use of autonomous and intelligent (AI)  systems, and can impact developers, users, and policymakers.” For this reason, it’s important that a foundation of trust be established.

Welby noted that many principles have been created by communities and organizations globally, to provide a framework for building trust. IEEE is doing its part by creating a set of actionable principles on ethically-aligned design, which place AI systems within a human rights framework using broadly-regarded ethical criteria.  “For our work, we use the term ‘ethical’ in a rather broad sense to include issues of transparency, accountability, bias reduction, and trustworthiness, that means a system that satisfies such criteria would be ethically more defendable than one that does not,” Welby explained.  

This robust international dialogue about the principles surrounding autonomous and intelligent systems that IEEE is helping to drive “should be followed by concrete action to implement viable solutions,” Welby said.  IEEE also has a number of standards in development (like project P7000, which aims to support organizations in creating shared value through technology), as well as other trust-building certification programs for organizations and governments.

“Trust is the social glue that enables humankind to progress through interaction with each other and the environment, including our technology,” Welby said, quoting an organizational psychologist. He concluded: “Growing trust in intelligent and autonomous technology is critical to its effective deployment, and ultimately only well-designed autonomous and intelligent systems, in combination with well-qualified data sets, will earn the trust of the public. The need today is for practical tools and mechanisms to demonstrate assurance that autonomous and intelligent systems are well designed and the data sets are of high quality. It is precisely to address this need that IEEE, in partnership with public and private sector partners from all around the world, establishes the consensus-based, globally open standards and certification schemes mentioned above in a transparent and inclusive manner. ” 

View Steve Welby’s speech below:

Learn more about IEEE and its approach to ethically-aligned design at Ethics In Action, the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.


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