AI: ethics must be the starting point – OECD

Ángel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, says cutting-edge technologies must bring benefits to all, not just a few

By Ben Laurance 16 September 2019

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Artificial intelligence has the potential to bring huge benefits to humankind. But there are dangers, according to Ángel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD.  Speaking at an event organised by London Business School’s Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, he warned that AI could exacerbate inequalities and tensions within societies.

Artificial intelligence – or AI – has the potential to radically transform our lives in a multitude of areas, from education to health, transport, communication and energy.

Already, AI-driven neural networks are being trialled for tasks as diverse and ranging in significance as detecting heart failure to ordering hamburgers.

But the fast-moving developments in the umbrella of technologies that define AI are also fuelling mass anxiety over the future of jobs as well as major concern over the huge potential for AI to be misused and abused in the wrong hands.

At a London Business School event, Ángel Gurría, Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), said that to realise the huge positive potential of AI, ethics had to be at the centre of its use.

“To realise the full potential of this promising technology, we need one critical ingredient,” he said.

“That critical ingredient is trust. And to build trust we need human-centred artificial intelligence that fosters sustainable development and inclusive human progress – and I stress the word inclusive,” he said.

Gurría was speaking on the topic “AI for Sustainable Development” at a gathering organised by the School’s Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

“AI holds significant potential to drive productivity gains,” he told his audience. “It can also help us meet our global ambitions, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals…the most ambitious set of goals and targets and indicators that mankind has set for itself." 

From doctors to shop owners and farmers, AI technologies are helping to make predictions more accurate.

“For workers, technological change presents great opportunities. It can help them with their productivity. It can help them to improve their earnings. It can also reduce exposure to dangerous, unhealthy and tedious tasks.”

Artificial intelligence has the potential to bring huge benefits to humankind. But there are dangers, according to Ángel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD.  Speaking at an event organised by London Business School’s Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, he warned that AI could exacerbate inequalities and tensions within societies.

But the OECD estimates that across its 36 member countries, over the next 10 or 15 years, such changes threaten the very existence of about 14% of today’s jobs.

A further third of the workforce “will suffer very serious disruptions in their workplace,” said Gurría.

Put these two groups together, and the OECD Secretary General believes “you’re talking practically half of the workforce who are going to suffer some kind of consequence.” 

The risks that AI could make the world worse, faster 



There is a risk that the increased use of AI could exacerbate current trends. A generation ago, the richest 10% of people in OECD countries had incomes seven times greater than those of the poorest 10%.

Low-skilled workers are particularly vulnerable to the impact of automation – and this in a world where life-long learning is imperative to cope with change, Gurría said.

These workers are as much as 40% "less likely to participate in adult learning than the high-skilled workers in the OECD countries." 

Gurría added: “The ones who need [life-long learning], most have 40% less chance of actually getting it. So, the inequalities will tend to increase rather than shrink, and therefore is it something that policy has to address.”

Now, the gap is even greater – the ratio is ten-to-one.

“It means that in one generation – 30 years, something like that – inequality has increased by 30% to 40%,” said Gurría. “It’s going very fast in the wrong direction.”

That's why the development of AI must have an ethical dimension, Gurría explained.

AI can help achieve wonderful things, such as improving productivity, extending product life and minimising waste to make people’s lives better.

But it is only a tool. “Ethics is the starting point… that divides what you should do and what you should not do with this kind of knowledge and information and technology.

“Because in the end, that’s what it is – it’s just technology, a tool. What you do with it depends on you, depends on us and has to do with the policies that we adopt.”

In May, the OECD launched its recommendations on AI. “The idea was to promote the responsible stewardship of what we call trustworthy artificial intelligence.”

Later this year, the OECD is launching its AI Observatory to develop practical guidance for policymakers. “It will focus on the interplay between AI and productivity, jobs, skills and trust with a big capital T. The trust, the trust, the trust!

“We’re also working on the labour market challenges created by AI.”

Gurría added: “We must harness the efficiency and intelligence of AI to build a better world where growth is inherently sustainable but it’s also inclusive and therefore benefits all. So let’s give the people the tools. Remember, it’s tools. This is not a policy in and of itself.

Artificial intelligence can help us if we apply it well. Give people the tools to succeed in the world of tomorrow. Let’s use this potential to protect our planet. Let’s harness progress in innovation to make it people-centred.”


Inclusive growth ‘good for business’ 



Gurría was asked by Rajesh Chandy, Academic Director for the Wheeler Institute, what advice he would give to the assembled London Business School students.

Gurría replied: “Being privileged of the world means there are many more billions and billions and billions who are less fortunate than we are and we owe them. 

“We need human-centred artificial intelligence that fosters sustainable development and inclusive human progress.”

“We owe them to go beyond our self-interest in order to make their world a little better also, as we make – very legitimately – our own world better.

“I’m not telling you that everybody has to turn into Mother Teresa,” he said. But for the less fortunate, he argues for the need to “go the extra mile, to make the extra effort”. 

He pointed out that the US Business Roundtable, which brings together chief executives of large US corporations, has recently released a new statement on corporate purpose that replaces shareholders with all stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, employees, the community in which the business operates and also shareholders. This was signed by 181 CEOs.

“This means to take into account the environment in which you work, the society in which you work, the people that work for you, the people for whom you work and the fact that not only your employees but also the town, or the city or the metropolis, the country in which you operate – or the countries in which multinationals operate – are the core of the concern of your company.

“And the important thing is that these objectives are not in collision. The fact of the matter is, today, that if you don’t fight the growing inequalities (and that starts with the companies), it’s bad for business.”

At the G7 leaders' summit in August, 34 major international companies pledged to fight inequality and promote diversity in their workplaces and supply chains as part of an initiative called Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG). It will be overseen by the OECD.  “Inequalities are addressed by inclusive growth,” said Gurría. But inclusive growth does not happen automatically.

“Inclusive growth happens if everybody has the same – equal – opportunities. The opportunities should be more equal rather than so brutally unequal as they are today. 

Somebody who is better-educated will have better health, will therefore have a better life and will tend to get the best jobs, and therefore will get better remunerated.”

He added: “What we have done is we have built into the system today a mechanism that actually accelerates, accentuates inequalities. So, it is these very smart CEOs who are saying it can’t go on anymore because this is unsustainable. So, it’s self-preservation just as much as it’s enlightenment and generosity.

“If you just continue stretching the rubber band, one day, it snaps. And then you break the social order. If you have enough people who are angry, you suddenly start seeing disruptions.”

Gurría emphasised that ethics should always be a consideration in how a business is run.

“Many of the things we do in the pursuit of profit and progress and productivity – most of them are absolutely legitimate. 

“But I think it is when it comes to affecting other people’s lives, that is where it stops, where the limit should be drawn. It doesn’t really take an ethics officer. But if you believe at some point that there’s conflict within the company, maybe you should propose that there be one or become one yourself.”

Gurría also highlighted the huge leaps in advancement that new technologies can secure in developing countries. 

“They can be so powerful to generate faster progress in education, faster progress in healthcare. Now we have drones that deliver medical supplies to places that are not accessible by regular services or roads during monsoon seasons.”

Gurría concluded: “You use technology to make things green, to make things inclusive and you use technology to make things more robust, more reliable and provide a better service.”

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