Ethics in AI – an oxymoron or a necessity?


Tina Woods, Chair of the AXA Health Tech & You Awards Expert Group and CEO & Founder of Collider Health, interviews Nuno Godinho, Chief Technology Officer of Empericus, a mobile platform to monitor and improve sports performance in athletes. Nuno was formerly Executive Vice-President (Product Delivery-Cloud Portfolio) at Sage and Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Software at GE Healthcare and sits on the AXA Health Tech & You Expert Group

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The ethics of AI remain a very hot topic. Making sure algorithms don’t perpetuate and accentuate societal bias is vexing regulators. Ensuring we do not exacerbate the digital divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is top of mind with policymakers. Knowing how companies are using our data – and with what consent and for what purpose – is starting to really matter to normal citizens concerned with maintaining their privacy. And making sure AI doesn’t destroy us remains the biggest concern of Elon Musk, who stopped the release of OpenAI’s latest product, a fake text generator out of fear it would be misused.

In the health arena, fitness trackers, mobile health apps and now at-home DNA testing kits are becoming mainstream (at latest count, more than 26 million consumers have added their DNA to four leading commercial ancestry and health databases in the US).  While it is great that we can see how many steps we have walked, how much sleep we have had and what our epigenetic profile tells us – what is happening with this data? How is it being used? And are these technologies as transparent as they say they are?

Hot on the heels of the Code of Conduct for Data-Driven Health and Care Technology just published by the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK, we posed these questions to Nuno Godinho, Chief Technology Officer of Empericus, a mobile platform to monitor and improve sports performance in athletes.

Why transparency is important

Transparency in health tech simply equates to upholding ethical values, which are proving to be increasingly important when the algorithms are beginning to out-pace and out-smart humans. In health tech it is even more important, as it is our personal information and DNA, so it’s essential that we know how our data is being used. Nuno remarked, ‘transparency is critical to anything in life – it is about showing what you are doing and how. If you look at Google and Facebook’s algorithms, they quickly become blurred as their AI systems optimise conversations; their language starts shifting from English to a new slang using different words and emojis. If ethics are not programmed into AI systems this can become dangerous, as two systems that have not been given ethical guidelines could destroy each other.’

Programming ethics into algorithms

Should we programme ‘ethics’ into algorithms?  This would be simple if ‘ethics’ was a clear and tangible entity. The true notion of ethics has been debated for centuries, and programming them into a machine is not something that can be effectively carried out by one organisation or group of organisations.

Nuno affirmed ‘algorithms are not the problem – the people building them are. We can build all the ethics we want into the algorithms, but they won’t survive an unethical person.’

The principles of the new Code of Conduct for Data-Driven Health and Care Technology are sound and do provide very valuable guidance for AI developers in the absence of continually up-to-date regulation. Nuno cautioned, however, that ‘history shows us that anyone who regulates a technology will either not be able to keep up with the changes, or they become corrupted by power. We need an overarching system to create the telemetry and evaluate the ethics, but we also need to re-evaluate the library of algorithms currently out there, which are being reused by programmers in Tensorflow, for example. Once we have evaluated the existing algorithms, it is a case of injecting the ethics so that you can come from both sides – one validating the end results, and one making sure that the starting point is already ethical. If you know the beginning and end – it is then easier to define the path.’

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Companies leading the way in ethics

According to Nuno, Microsoft is leading the way, driving innovation within the health space, working with the EU and various other countries, and seeing how it can collaborate by giving its data and showing transparencies in its systems. It is clear on how it handles data and who handles their data. Ten years ago Microsoft was like Facebook, yet in the last three years it has become one of the most pioneering companies to give data to consumers. While it might have a lot to gain from this, it is the way forward. The new CEO has been a big catalyst towards this ‘open approach’ alongside his leadership team. This is a new version of Microsoft and it is gaining a lot of respect within the industry.

While companies such as Microsoft are leading the way, various tech giants are nearing their demise due to ‘a toxic arrogance’.  Nuno said, ‘Facebook has its days numbered, as it won’t survive the scrutiny from both government and the public. Kids are no longer using it as they see it as the social network that their parents use. The smaller companies will have to lead the way. Arrogance has a huge price to pay – these companies are too arrogant to survive.

While arrogance is crippling the tech giants, the smaller players are also faced with obstacles. As companies attempt to become ‘scalable’ they are hindered by a lack of understanding of what this entails. ‘Scalability’ is a big word that everyone uses in software and digital, but no one knows what it really means. Nuno observed ‘It is like AI – which is like teenage sex – everyone says they know how to do it, are the best at it, but have no experience (and are not doing it!).’

The trend towards open collaboration

Moving forward, transparency can only be achieved through a collaborative effort in Nuno’s view, adding ‘If you try and win alone in digital you will fail – you only succeed through partnerships and collaboration’.  As new generations are becoming more clued up about their data usage and privacy, they are exploring the control of their data. New generations are becoming more aware and want to know what their data is being used for. Nuno added, ‘the ‘black box’ model needs to stop – and from a health perspective this is critical. Most ‘black box’ algorithms have their days numbered – people are now far more savvy about knowing where their data is going. As users become more guarded about how their data is being shared, transparency is paramount to gaining and preserving their trust. We will increasingly see a move towards an open standard in health that can open the door to an array of pioneering health technologies for the future.’

Top tips for entrepreneurs and innovators

Nuno’s wisdom in three steps:

  1. Be focused. Define your goal precisely and give context to your ideas by always keeping the bigger picture in mind. Put your idea onto paper, look at it every morning, then look at it in small steps using the SMART principle
  2. Don’t do it for customers, do it with them. When designing any successful product, you must sit with customers and understand exactly what their needs and desires are. Only then can you know if there is a gap for your idea.
  3. Be humble and willing to adapt. This is essential, as demonstrated by YouTube, for example, which started as a dating app: sharing videos didn’t take off as originally envisaged but the business was willing to adapt and evolve and now it is the largest video streaming service across the globe.

NB The views are the interviewee’s and not necessarily those of AXA PPP.

About the author

Tina Woods is founder of Collider Health, a health innovation catalyst that works with organisations to think and do differently and transform health with meaningful impact. She is also the founder of ColliderSCIENCE, a social enterprise to inspire young people in science and engineering and equip them with the skills to create their future.

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