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AI ethics in action

Advancing trustworthy AI through a formal, strategic approach to AI ethics must be more than a noble ambition.

As AI adoption permeates across all industries, so does the imperative to integrate AI ethics. Customers, employees, and shareholders not only expect companies to use technology responsibly, they demand it.

The IBM Institute for Business Value first explored how corporations are implementing AI ethics in a 2018 survey. This report follows up on the topic. We partnered with Oxford Economics in 2021 to survey 1,200 executives across 16 business and technology roles in 22 countries. Additionally, a separate 2021 survey polled more than 14,000 consumers, citizens, and employees for their perspectives on the subject.

Most respondents recognize the significance of trustworthy AI. 85% of consumers say that it is important for organizations to factor in ethics as they use AI to tackle society’s problems. Similarly, 75% of executives rank AI ethics as important in 2021—increasing from less than 50% of respondents in 2018.

Many organizations have taken steps to embed AI ethics into existing business guidelines. But consumers, citizens, and employees indicate more needs to be done. Only 40% of those surveyed trust companies to be responsible and ethical in their use of new technologies such as AI—a similar percentage to 2018.

And despite their efforts to date, even corporate leadership knows that significant work remains. Fewer than 20% of executives strongly agree that their organizations’ practices and actions on AI ethics match (or exceed) their stated principles and values. These results confirm and quantify what the World Economic Forum (WEF) calls the “intention-action” gap.

Executives ranking AI ethics as important jumped from less than 50% in 2018 to nearly 75% in 2021.

Organizations face a stark choice. They can rely on impending regulations and hope the spotlight on ethical issues dims over time—a risky alternative. Or they can distinguish themselves by confronting ethical issues strategically, purposefully, and thoughtfully.

Who is responsible for AI ethics?

Accountability has shifted dramatically since 2018 when executives pointed to their technical leaders as primarily responsible for AI ethics. The 2021 survey reveals that companies across all industries and geographies are now looking to their non-technical executives to lead—and with a collaborative approach. They are learning that the complexity of operationalizing AI ethics requires input from all business functions.

Changing of the guard: From 2018 to 2021, responsibility for AI ethics shifted from technical to non-technical leaders.

Changing of the guard

Executives indicate they are better prepared today to take on the challenges. In 2021, four times as many CEOs say they are ready to act on AI ethics issues than in 2018. And Chief Human Resource Officers are primed to proactively address required employee education. Those with plans to retrain and reskill workers impacted by AI increased from 37% to 55%.

Trustworthy AI can deliver differentiation

The benefits of trustworthy AI extend beyond mitigating risks and meeting stakeholders’ expectations for acting responsibly. In fact, 75% of executives view ethics as a source of competitive differentiation.

Our results show that the most advanced adopters of AI are also leading in AI ethics practices. And those organizations embracing AI as key to their business strategy report achieving 2 times the ROI on AI projects relative to those companies that do not view AI as important.

3 out of 4 of executives view ethics as a source of competitive differentiation.

A focused approach to AI ethics also can complement organizations’ efforts to achieve competitive advantage, sustainable innovation, and even social justice goals through the responsible use of technology. More than 67% of organizations that view AI and AI ethics as important also indicate they outperform their peers in sustainability, social responsibility, and diversity and inclusion.

Next steps for advancing trustworthy AI

The resources are ready and waiting for organizations to use as they launch their AI ethics initiatives. The field of AI ethics—initially explored in cross-disciplinary research settings—offers many constructive frameworks, assets, and associations. Choosing the appropriate tools depends on where an organization is in its AI journey and who is taking the actions.

Download this report to go deeper on the state of AI ethics implementation and to read an extensive guide of practical, role-specific steps organizational leaders can take to advance adoption of AI ethics.


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Meet the authors

Brian Goehring

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, Global Research Lead, AI, IBM Institute for Business Value


Francesca Rossi, IBM Fellow, AI Ethics Global Leader

Beth Rudden

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, IBM Distinguished Engineer, Cognitive Science and Trusted AI, Data & Technology Transformation, IBM Consulting

Originally published 31 March 2022