The continual and constant digital disruption of our world has had a profound effect on every aspect of our lives, from the way we interact with one another, how we gather information and make decisions, to how we work.
But is technological innovation actually benefiting humankind? Is it empowering, or does it encroach on people’s rights to privacy and digital security? Will the digital divide serve only to increase inequality? And can technology be considered as a force for good?
At a recent Ethics and Governance Think Tank hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), a panel of prominent speakers explored the ethical issues around digital disruption.
The ethical implications of technology
Sneha Shah, CEO of Thomson Reuters Africa said advances in technology had served to widen the inequality gap: “The digital divide is beginning to push people further apart and cause an erosion of trust.”
Smarter tools were resulting in smarter criminals, she added, with the use of technology and cryptocurrencies in human trafficking, financial crime and terrorism on the rise. The same digital skill sets are not available to law enforcement agencies to fight these crimes.
Luke McKend, CEO of Google South Africa explained that the previously held unquestioned belief among many people in the tech industry of technology as a force for good was being eroded: “It was our ‘North Star’, but has now completely evaporated in places like Silicon Valley. There is now a new sense of ambiguity; an ‘us vs. them’ and a growing lack of trust.”
Shah said our deep reliance on technology has ethical implications for society, and a breakdown of society that is fully reliant on technology can happen quite quickly.
Chairman of Massmart and Aspen Pharmacare Holdings, Kuseni Dlamini explained there was an inherent paradox in technology in that it has the ability to simultaneously disempower and empower us. “But overreliance makes us vulnerable and exposed,” he warned.
“People are disempowered when it comes to relating to one another as human beings, and we may end up with a generation who lack social skills. People are becoming dehumanised, which is something we must be very, very careful of.”
From a business perspective, this distance has an impact on productivity and teamwork.
Shah added that it is important to realise that technology is not in itself a moral agent, but is dependent on the person using it and their approach to ethics. Due to ever-increasing levels of scrutiny from consumers, technology can be used for purposes of improving transparency, like tools that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to pin point fake news.
Access to technology in Africa
Africa’s problem is too little technology, McKend said. And what little there is, is badly distributed. “Only a small amount of people in Africa are able to access and use technology, and then there are 20 or 30 million people who have absolutely no access at all.”
“We can unlock the enormous opportunities offered by technology by providing more egalitarian access. Then the theory of technology for good can become a reality.”
Dlamini said the challenge for South Africa is how to create ecosystems to encourage tech entrepreneurs who can create technology that can be monetised.
“We need digital education to improve Africa’s low levels of digital penetration.A lot of opportunities exist to lift people out of poverty using technology,” he added.
Artificial Intelligence and the world of work
As AI increasingly replaces jobs and workers, society will be forced to make compromises around employing more people to reduce poverty and providing meaningful work. This is especially relevant when considered in the context of South Africa’s high unemployment rate and a poorly educated population lacking the skills to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“There is not one part of our business which hasn’t been touched by AI and machine learning,” McKend said. “It is incumbent on any employer to reskill or rework your organisation to make sure they are ready.”
There have not been any job losses at Google as a result of AI. The technology has “actually allowed people to be more creative and spend more time with customers,” McKend explained. “Human nuance is needed in AI, a human-centred approach to technology is very important.”
How should companies respond?
CEO of FNB Jacques Celliers said the technological toolsets we have today put us in a position to solve many of the challenges we face: “Business must adjust, but there is a future where people will be needed. The tools of the future will set up people for success, but people must be willing to adapt. Our biggest challenge is the ethical deficit, and we must work to build a more ethical environment.”
“Being at the frontier of what’s possible is really a youthful game,” McKend said. “We have to up our game and participate in the technology that is actually making things happen. We mustn’t be afraid of it, you need to participate in order to learn how to engage.”
Technology presents both risks and opportunities, Shah concluded. “The answer is smarter humans with smarter technology. We need empathy to understand the social issues we face and how to use technology to fix them.”