Be Skeptical of Thought Leaders

Book Review by Evan Selinger: “Corporations regularly advertise their commitment to “ethics.” They often profess to behave better than the law requires and sometimes may even claim to make the world a better place. Google, for example, trumpets its commitment to “responsibly” developing artificial intelligence and swears it follows lofty AI principles that include being “socially beneficial” and “accountable to people,” and that “avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias.”

Google’s recent treatment of Timnit Gebru, the former co-leader of its ethical AI team, tells another story. After Gebru went through an antagonistic internal review process for a co-authored paper that explores social and environmental risks and expressed concern over justice issues within Google, the company didn’t congratulate her for a job well done. Instead, she and vocally supportive colleague Margaret Mitchell (the other co-leader) were “forced out.” Google’s behavior “perhaps irreversibly damaged” the company’s reputation. It was hard not to conclude that corporate values misalign with the public good.

Even as tech companies continue to display hypocrisy, there might still be good reasons to have high hopes for their behavior in the future. Suppose corporations can do better than ethics washingvirtue signaling, and making incremental improvements that don’t challenge aggressive plans for financial growth. If so, society desperately needs to know what it takes to bring about dramatic change. On paper, Susan Liautaud is the right person to turn to for help. She has impressive academic credentials (a PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and a JD from Columbia University Law School), founded and manages an ethics consulting firm with an international reach, and teaches ethics courses at Stanford University.

In The Power of Ethics: How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World, Liautaud pursues a laudable goal: democratize the essential practical steps for making responsible decisions in a confusing and complex world. While the book is pleasantly accessible, it has glaring faults. With so much high-quality critical journalistic coverage of technologies and tech companies, we should expect more from long-form analysis.

Although ethics is more widely associated with dour finger-waving than aspirational world-building, Liautaud mostly crafts an upbeat and hopeful narrative, albeit not so cheerful that she denies the obvious pervasiveness of shortsighted mistakes and blatant misconduct. The problem is that she insists ethical values and technological development pair nicely. Big Tech might be exerting increasing control over our lives, exhibiting an oversized influence on public welfare through incursions into politics, education, social communication, space travel, national defense, policing, and currency — but this doesn’t in the least quell her enthusiasm, which remains elevated enough throughout her book to affirm the power of the people. Hyperbolically, she declares, “No matter where you stand […] you have the opportunity to prevent the monopolization of ethics by rogue actors, corporate giants, and even well-intentioned scientists and innovators.”…(More)“.