Society is at a "crossroads" when it comes to artificial intelligence - and a technology executive explains why we need to be careful

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artificial intelligenceKeith Srakocic/APThe animated face of prototype robot GRACE, Graduate Robot Attending Conference, is tested by Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Reid Simmons, right, in the lab at the school in Pittsburgh.

  • In this op-ed, SAP president of Americas and Asia Pacific Japan Global Customer Operations Jennifer Morgan argues that while artificial intelligence holds plenty of promise for businesses, it may also create numerous economic, political and social challenges.
  • AI technology needs to be governed by clear ethics rules, Morgan says.

The AI revolution has the promise to unlock boundless potential for businesses: from better products and services, to faster innovation and unimaginable leaps in productivity.

But, like all great technological advancements, AI also has the potential to create numerous economic, political and social challenges, depending upon how it is used and implemented. Because of that, the use of AI technology needs to be governed by clear rules of ethics - defined at the outset of this new era, instead of later on, when abuses or ill-considered practices could be far more difficult to control.

This is not the first time society has been at a crossroads where we face new technological powers that can serve great and worthy purposes or be abused to support some very bad ones. Yet one thing is clear and remains in our power: artificial intelligence, will never substitute for human wisdom or moral responsibility.

Among technology companies, few are closer to the center of this ethical challenge than SAP. Our various systems play some part in about 77% of the world's transactions, and our applications affect the lives of billions of people daily. Add to that, more than 400,000 corporate customers worldwide, and it's clear we are in a position of influence. We intend to use that influence, by laying out careful standards, and encouraging other companies to do the same.

Not long ago, we announced our guiding principles for the uses of AI. We became the first European technology company to create an external, transparent AI Ethics Advisory Panel consisting of thoughtful men and women from many fields. The panel will stay alert to possible misuses of AI in every area - from labor management to data protection. It will listen to concerns and work on ways to avert problems.

Moreover, in all practices employing AI technology, we firmly adhere to our company's Human Rights Commitment Statement, as well as to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Both of those documents pay special attention, as they should, to the potential impact all new technologies could have on jobs. And it's a safe assumption that AI will follow the familiar pattern of creating new types of work at the expense of traditional ones. It's all the more important, therefore, that companies not be passive as these changes unfold, relentlessly adopting technologies without regard for their impact on workers or society.

As AI is just emerging, these guiding principles are just a starting point. As large and resourceful as we are, we know we don't have all the answers. In publishing these principles, we invite the best ideas of everyone on our team. That's why an internal Steering Committee, comprised of SAP employees from development, strategy, human resources, and other departments, will work with the External Advisory Panel to refine the guidelines and ensure they keep pace with the dramatic changes to come.

We also know that the entire community of AI technology providers must work together to uphold ethical standards, and vague standards will not be enough. Clear, bright lines of ethics, far from hindering AI and ML, will be essential to their success. As with every new power we gain from technology, what matters most is that technology serves humanity, and not the other way around.

Jennifer Morgan is a member of SAP's executive board and the president of Americas and Asia Pacific Japan Global Customer Operations

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