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Leaders must consider the ethical, social, and cultural implications of technology

Dec 1, 2023

Future Ready Leaders Presentation

Rahaf Harfoush (on screen)

Artificial intelligence (AI) romantic companions and chatbot business negotiations may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but AI is already embedded in the world around us in unexpected ways. And while leaders need to embrace the new technological landscape that’s upon us, they must tread carefully into digital spaces, says a digital anthropologist tasked with analyzing recommendations for the international governance of AI.

Rahaf Harfoush, HBA '06, who is part of the newly announced United Nations AI Advisory Board, warns AI can’t be accepted at face value and business decision-making must consider the deep impacts that technology and culture have on each other.

“Ultimately, we're not just making technological decisions anymore. Now, every time we make a decision, we have to think about the cultural and social issues that are applied to that as well,” she says.

Harfoush spoke about the ethical, social, and cultural implications of AI for a keynote address at Ivey’s The Future We See Symposium. Speaking virtually from France due to her AI Advisory Board  commitments, she shared some quirky and not so quirky examples of how AI has permeated our lives. Everything from lonely individuals sexting with AI chatbot partners to organizations using generative AI to screen job candidates.

AI vs. human instincts

But what happens when AI companions reject their human partners? Or what if job candidates use AI to appear more qualified than they actually are? If we focus solely on the surface changes we can see when technology is applied to business, Harfoush says we’ll overlook how it influences society in such ways.

“Ultimately, we are combining cutting-edge technology with these ancient human instincts … So I want to make sure that we know who we are designing these products for – us – and what these products are going to do to our very ancient, very loving human hearts,” she said. “It’s no longer about technology. It’s about everything else plus the technology and that’s something we have to learn to grapple with.”

Harfoush discussed some of the issues leaders should be thinking about as they move into the digital era. Here are some takeaways.

Are you building skills and expertise?

Whether it’s chatbots negotiating with supply chain vendors or artists using generative AI to inspire – and even create – their next masterpieces, Harfoush told how AI is increasingly used to automate tasks once done by humans. And that gives rise to concerns about job displacement, content originality and ownership, and erosion of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, she says.

“You can start to see this tension across industries because a lot of us are wondering what this means for our expertise and our knowledge – for the skills we have acquired so far,” she said. “If we are not careful, we risk losing our mastery of thinking.”

Harfoush called for leaders to “invest in building intentional expertise,” relating how a law firm required new hires to manually create 50 contracts before being allowed to use AI. This way, they could both understand the process and spot errors in the technology-generated content.

“If you are using AI to build upon or take advantage of knowledge you already have, it’s going to be amazing. But if you’re using AI to skip the step of having to learn new skills yourself, you’ll have a short-term gain and I believe it will erode your knowledge skillset,” she said.

Does technology align with your beliefs?

When Joan MacDonald, a 76-year-old Cobourg, Ontario resident, documented her six-year fitness journey on social media, she proved that good health has no age limit. Now the heavyweight fitness influencer challenges others to defy stereotypes, flex their age, and reclaim their power – and many of her followers are doing just that.

It’s an example of how technology can shape our views of the world, beliefs, and behaviour, says Harfoush, in ways that can be either good or bad for society. Harfoush shared multiple AI-generated concepts of a CEO that mostly showed men wearing eyeglasses and business suits even though the prompts didn’t indicate such details. Noting that’s an example of how technologies may be infused with our biases, she urged leaders to ask questions, consider the cultural context behind the tools, and ensure technologies align with their belief systems.

“Basically any technology that you use has someone’s idea of what the world should be like inside it … And once you realize this, you start to see the seriousness of the conversations out there and the complexity of the problems we have to solve,” she said. “If we’re not intentional about how we’re designing these tools and what these tools believe to be true, we risk infusing cutting-edge technologies with very old, outdated biases.”

Listen and learn in digital spaces

If you think TikTok is just a space for memes, jokes, and dancing, think again. Harfoush told of the diversity of information available on TikTok because its algorithm determines content relevancy based on scrolling patterns. She recommended leaders spend time in digital spaces, such as TikTok, to learn about the cultural norms that are emerging.

“If you’re not using it to listen, then you’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to improve your decision-making process because digital spaces are revealing profound shifts in societal values,” she said. “If you want to anticipate what’s coming, you have to do it by going into these digital spaces, otherwise you’re operating in a vacuum.”

Don’t forget about ethics

When Amazon announced last year that its virtual assistant, Alexa, might soon mimic the voices of users’ deceased loved ones to help people cope with their loss, the development raised alarming security and ethical concerns.

Harfoush said fraud is on the rise as scammers leverage such digital intimacy and it’s only going to get more sophisticated. That’s why it’s more important than ever for leaders to deploy technology in transparent, ethical, and thoughtful ways.

“It’s not just how much does it cost, what are the features, and where can we get efficiencies?... It’s not just a technology decision anymore,” she said. “You really have to think about the ethical, social, and cultural implications. And that means being educated and connected to the culture that is evolving and to how people are using these tools in new and exciting ways.”

Seize the opportunities

But that doesn’t mean organizations should shy away from technology. Instead leaders should view each disruption as an opportunity, Harfoush says, and seek ways to use technology as a means to better the world.

“There's always opportunity, there's always a mechanism, there's always a little bubble where we can do good, and where we can have a positive impact,” she said. “And I think that's a really important mindset shift that we have to develop so that we don't shy away from disruption, but actually embrace it, go towards it, and deliberately look for how we can actually come through on the other side stronger than we were before.”

Sharing philosopher Eric Hoffer’s statement, “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists,” Harfoush encouraged leaders to approach technological change with curiosity and optimism.

“I believe the greatest skill we can develop is that of curiosity because people who are curious understand that there’s always, always potential,” she said. “Are you going to be the learners or the learned? That choice is up to you.”

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