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Why Technology Companies Need Ethics Boards

By Katie Zigelman

Social responsibility is an incredibly important aspect of any reputable business or organization. Guidelines and standards that ensure organizations operate under principles of fairness, honesty, and transparency contribute to a greater social good that ultimately advances society.

Across most industries, ethics boards exist to serve this purpose. In short, an ethics board (which also goes by ethics committee or institutional review board) is responsible for governing the rules of an organization’s conduct and providing accountability for its behavior. Ensuring organizations adhere to responsible behavior, ethics boards are an important mechanism to understanding and controlling the organization’s reputation and managing long-term risks. 

The exact set of responsibilities for an ethics board vary based on the organization, but some include the following: formulating principles of ethics for adoption, interpreting and administering those rules and procedures, investigating and ruling on complaints of unethical conduct

Ethics boards are prominent in many industries, including business, government, and medicine. Some examples include: the Committee of Ethics in the US House of Representatives, the San Francisco Ethics Commission, and the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical & Judicial Affairs (CEJA). Medical ethics boards ensure medical practitioners stay within crucial boundaries that protect the privacy and health of patients, practices and information.

Technology companies are beginning to establish new ethics boards to govern emerging technologies that stand to significantly impact society. Microsoft, for instance, already has its own Code of Conduct establishing its commitment to government regulatory compliance and ethics. It also has created a separate set of guidelines to govern the responsible creation of artificial intelligence systems. (Earlier this year, Google made headlines after introducing its own AI ethics board and quickly turning around to disband it after electing controversial members to its board.)

As illustrated by a now-abandoned recruitment tool by Amazon, whose training resulted in bias against female candidates, ethical guidelines for AI systems will continue to be an important and essential component for the future development of technology. Ethics boards organized to steer technology in positive directions and eliminate any negative unintended consequences will be critical to the success and trustworthiness of AI platforms -- as well as other technologies -- moving forward.

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