Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Public policy shouldn’t be shaped in an ethical vacuum

Political parties should institute a culture of examining what a policy decision implies by way of ethics

Democratic traditions can take root in strange places and in the most peculiar of circumstances. Ask Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer (CEO) of Google, or Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan, whose open letter to shareholders highlights the pitfalls of unrestrained and irresponsible capitalism. Both Pichai’s and Dimon’s responses do send some broad messages to India Inc. as well as to Indian democracy, which is being tested through a lengthy election process to pick the next government.

Google had set up an internal ethics committee, called Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), to advise the company’s management on the glide path for increasingly incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) across its suite of products and services. Google already uses AI across its various functions and sought advice from internal and external experts on the ethical implications of using it. The composition of the committee set off a flurry of protests, with more than 2,500 employees signing a petition protesting against the appointment of Kay Coles James, president of right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation.

The employees group at Google, who call themselves Googlers Against Transphobia and Hate, alleged that James had publicly spoken out against gay, trans and immigrant communities and that by selecting her Google was enunciating a version of “ethics" that valued proximity to power (James is said to be close to US President Donald Trump) over the well-being of society’s vulnerable sections. The protesters articulated the reason for their opposition rather succinctly: “From AI that doesn’t recognize trans people, doesn’t “hear" more feminine voices, and doesn’t “see" women of color, to AI used to enhance police surveillance, profile immigrants, and automate weapons—those who are most marginalized are most at risk. Not only are James’ views counter to Google’s stated values, but they are directly counter to the project of ensuring that the development and application of AI prioritizes justice over profit."

Interestingly, Pichai then disbanded the committee. The ethical issues involved in AI are indeed complex and perhaps, to give it the benefit of doubt, Google had not anticipated some of the slippery areas. About 10 months ago, Google was forced to revisit its AI technology policy after employees objected to the company’s contract with the Pentagon for AI in drone technology.

Pivot to Jamie Dimon and his letter to shareholders. While reasserting that capitalism is perhaps the only system that works, Dimon also cautions against unbridled capitalism. But then he takes a sudden left turn. He advocates Europe’s model of social democracy, which is undergirded by a robust welfare system. He writes: “It’s essential to have a strong social safety net—and all countries should be striving for continuous improvement in regulations as well as social and welfare conditions…And that may very well mean taxing the wealthy more. If that happens, the wealthy should remember that if we improve our society and our economy, then they, in effect, are among the main winners."

The two examples hold out warnings, or lessons, especially for Indian companies and political parties which, empirically, have not been too fond of mixing business with ethics.

The first is how to carefully consider the ethical plane while framing new policy. In recent times, demonetization has been an example of how the ethical implications were ignored in favour of some short-term political gains. The Congress, under the influence of influential businesses in western India, had implemented a freight equalization policy that significantly contributed to the de-industrialisation of eastern India, especially West Bengal. As new technologies, such as AI or Internet of Things, become more pervasive, policy will have to correspondingly incorporate an ethical outlook on how these impact society. In India, for example, AI’s effect on employment and human dignity will become critical. There are many unseen ethical dimensions to AI. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has raised ethical concerns about how the AI involved in driving autonomous vehicles will react when faced with two alternate scenarios, both ending in an inevitable accident. The Congress manifesto promises to establish a “National Mission" focused on sunrise technologies. Both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party would do well to institute a culture in which the ethical implications of public policy are examined before they are unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

Dimon’s exhortations on social safety nets should ideally inform the jejune debate that has dominated the current electoral contest in India. The discussion on a social security and welfare system has degenerated into something akin to throwing money from a helicopter, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of competitive claims. The variants of a universal basic income proposed by both those national parties are, in effect, a veiled admission of mismanagement and failure to provide citizens with basic public goods. There is no guarantee that assured income programmes, by whatever names they’re called, will result in the poor gaining improved access to quality education or healthcare infrastructure. The rush to announce competing schemes should be preceded by deliberations on the ethics of replacing public goods with hard cash. Fiscal slippage should be the least of the worries.

Rajrishi Singhal is consulting editor of Mint. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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