News  |    |  June 24, 2019

What Does an AI Ethicist Do?

News article by Thomas H. Davenport.
Published by MIT Sloan Management Review.

Excerpt:

Microsoft was one of the earliest companies to begin discussing and advocating for an ethical perspective on artificial intelligence. The issue began to take off at the company in 2016, when CEO Satya Nadella spoke at a developer conference about how the company viewed some of the ethical issues around AI, and later that year published an article about these issues. Nadella’s primary focus was on Microsoft’s orientation toward using AI to augment human capabilities and building trust into intelligent products. The next year, Microsoft’s R&D head Eric Horvitz partnered with Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer Brad Smith to form Aether, a cross-functional committee addressing AI and ethics in engineering and research.

With these foundations laid, in 2018, Microsoft established a full-time position in AI policy and ethics. Tim O’Brien, who has been with Microsoft for 15 years as a general manager, first in platform strategy and then global communications, took on the role.

Of course, many organizations are increasingly paying attention to ethical issues around AI. In a 2018 Deloitte survey, 32% of AI-aware executives ranked the ethical risks of AI as one of their top three AI-related concerns. Microsoft and O’Brien are essentially bellwethers on this issue — the figurative sheep at the head of the flock — in creating a role focused on, as O’Brien puts it, AI ethics “advocacy and evangelism.”

I talked with O’Brien to find out how his role came about, what he does in it, and what kinds of policies might emerge at Microsoft because of his work. I also asked him how the AI ethicist role might relate to similar positions at other companies. [ . . . ]