SAP becomes first European company to create proprietary ethics board

SAP hopes to set an example for other tech companies with new AI Ethics Advisory Panel

German software company SAP recently became the first tech company in Europe to establish an external AI ethics board.  The job of the ethics board, which is made up of experts hailing from a variety of fields, will be to monitor ethics issues such as safety, data protection and racial bias.  Currently, SAP uses the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as its own Human Rights Commitment Statement as a reference when AI technology is concerned.

The ethics board is comprised of experts in ethics and public policy and will work together with internal SAP employees in different departments.  Jennifer Morgan, a member of the SAP executive board, claims that SAP is involved in 77% of the world’s transactions and has over 400 000 corporate customers globally.   Morgan hopes the new AI ethics board will allow SAP to leverage this influence in the path towards responsible AI research and development.

Creating a company-specific ethics board is just one approach to ethics in AI

SAP is the first European company to take such a direct approach to ethics (although companies like Microsoft have also committed to ethical AI development), but it’s far from being the only company to acknowledge the importance of ethics in AI.  Indeed, where AI is concerned, in the last few years, companies, NGOs and governments have been scrambling to put ethical guidelines in place.

Earlier this year, the EU appointed a 52-person High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence made up of academics and industry professionals, among others.  It will be interesting to see how SAP’s ethics regulations develop in tandem with the guidelines that will be drawn up by this Europe-wide board.

We can surely expect more companies to follow SAP’s example and create their own ethics boards.  Will these in-house boards be made redundant if the EU-wide expert group manages to lay down strict ethics guidelines, or will there always be a call for companies to take the initiative and go one step further in emphasizing their commitment to ethics in AI research and development?

In-house ethics boards are all very well, but is it more efficient to tackle the question of ethics from a broader point of view?  An interesting approach is that taken by Digital Catapult in the form of an Ethics Framework, a set of guidelines that they are offering to startups to help guide them through the ethics maze.  Digital Catapult points out that while startups are ideally suited for incorporating ethical considerations into their business models right from the beginning, they lack the resources for abstract discussions and would therefore benefit from an already-established framework.  Such a generalized solution, applicable across a variety of companies in different fields, could be a good solution for many small- to medium-sized AI companies.

AI and ethics: A double-edged sword

There is no shortage of concern about the potential ethical pitfalls of AI, but at the same time, we should remember that AI also shows great promise if we manage to reign in its more questionable qualities.  SAP is already showing a commitment to ethics with the recent launch of its “Plastics Cloud” project, which will use AI to process data about single-use plastics in an effort to reduce waste.  We can only hope that ethics will continue to enjoy a growing focus within AI companies in the future.

What are your thoughts on SAP’s new ethics board?  Do you think that this is the most effective way for companies to ensure responsible AI research and development?