New technologies, ethics and accountability

We talk a lot in the Tech Faculty about the potential benefits of new technologies such as AI, big data and data analytics. But we also need to recognise growing concerns about the harm that some of these technologies can cause in the real world.

For example, there are many reports of bias in algorithms across sectors such as financial services, recruitment and justice. This bias can lead to unfair outcomes and entrench discrimination. We also see concerns about decisions being made by algorithms, not people, especially where we don’t understand exactly what the algorithm is doing. And of course, actions and content published by the big tech companies such as Facebook and Google result in high-profile media stories almost every day.

So what can we do to build more trust around technology? Ethics is certainly a key part of the answer. Ethics is all about doing the right thing and not doing things that are harmful. It focuses our minds on justice and fair outcomes, and helps us to make consistent and structured decisions when there are competing interests, groups or rights.

But ethics must be backed up by robust accountability if it’s to be meaningful. Accountability is all about making sure people do as they say. So holding people to account for ethical decisions and actions makes it more than just good intentions – it is something with teeth. People, not computers, need to remain accountable for decisions, and we need to think clearly about how that accountability is divided between the tech people, business users and boards.

Without strong accountability, regulation can often be seen as the only answer. But while there is a clear role for regulation, it has its limits, especially given the pace of change in technology. Too much emphasis on regulation also tends to turn things into tickbox and compliance exercises, rather than embedding the right values and culture in the organisation.

These are particularly important issues for the accountancy profession. Our code of ethics is central to our professionalism and we need to make sure that it remains robust and relevant as accountants make greater use of new tech. But many chartered accountants also play key roles in businesses – on boards, as investors, through audit, for example – where they can help businesses start to get a grip on these issues, ask tough questions about ethics and accountability, and start to build more trust.

ICAEW’s new report on new technologies, ethics and accountability highlights some of the emerging ethical issues around technology, and the challenges for good accountability. You can download it, or watch a short video summary, here.