Dreamforce 2017 - Benioff's call to arms for an ethical Ohana

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan November 7, 2017
There are big ethical questions around the kind of AI and other tech on which Salesforce has bet the farm. CEO Marc Benioff wants the Ohana to face up to them.

One of the interesting aspects of this year’s Dreamforce has been the public ‘squaring of the circle’ around AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Let me explain what I mean. On the one hand, Salesforce has bet the farm on AI and machine-learning as being the shape of things to come.

On other hand, unlike some other AI fellow-travellers, the firm isn’t afraid to articulate some of the more difficult ethical dilemmas around such new tech.

The latter aspect took up a fair chunk of CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote address on Day One, which at times became an impassioned plea about the need for society to stop and have a word with itself.

This didn’t appeal to everyone:

Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 12.45.56

Now while I'm a fully paid-up member of the Ray Wang Appreciation Society, I have to disagree with him on this point. I find the emergence of ethical and political activism in the tech industry of late to be an important, if sometimes reluctant, acceptance of wider responsibilities than just raking in the cash for shareholders.

And in fact Benioff's comments are entirely in keeping the increasingly public ethical stance taken by Salesforce in recent years over issues such gender equality at work and LGBTQ rights, as well as being unafraid to criticise the more controversial policies of the Donald Trump administration, notably around immigration travel bans and outlawing trans people serving in the military.

Tech firms have of course been on collision course with the White House for some time, something made manifest in recent weeks with the Senate Committee hearing around so-called ‘Fake News’ and the role of Russia in influencing the outcome of the last US Presidential election.

That has resulted in Facebook, Twitter and Google being on the firing line from US legislators about their behavior amid accusations that the social platform providers have been more interested in taking the money than in behaving in an ethical and societally-responsible fashion.

Benioff weighed into this debate in an interview with Yahoo Finance at Dreamforce this week when he said of Facebook and Twitter - BFF Google didn’t get a name check - that:

This is, I think, a marquee moment in our industry because what you basically heard from companies like Facebook and Twitter is that they’ve created these amazing new technologies but even they don’t know how they’re being used and they don’t even know who’s using them. Well, that’s unacceptable. These companies have to take full responsibility for the technology that they’ve created and to make sure that it’s being used in a proper way with the right morals and values that we would expect any corporation to be led by.

Wonder and worry

That question of morals and ethics is a theme that’s being returned to time and again in sessions around Dreamforce, with Benioff posing rhetorical questions throughout his own keynote, wondering at the vast potential of new technologies like AI, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing, but then worrying about their misuse:

You can see these technologies are amazing - way beyond our wildest imaginations - but you can also see that these technologies can be used in many different ways. They can be used to unite us, to divide us, to connect us, to disconnect us. And they can be used to create more equality in the world, but there also could be more inequality.

Are [these technologies] uniting us or are they dividing us? Are we more connected or are we somehow less connected? Is there more equality in the world or is there less equality in the world? I've been feeling that [concern] in talking to customers. That's definitely the worry that's out there - that there is this division happening, this kind of stress created by this Fourth Industrial Revolution. Yes, we have this promise of this new connected world, but what is it doing to us? And what are other actors doing around the world using these technologies? Are they changing our society? Are they changing our elections?

Ultimately though no-one is left in any doubt that Benioff is a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy. He's an out-and-proud technophile down to his Adidas sneakers, not an armageddon peddling technophobe. The new technologies he talks about fire his imagination and bring out the evangelical fervor of the man.

He points the Dreamforce delegates to postitive exemplars - the Trailblazers - such as Coca Cola:

They have these incredible coolers. The next-generation of these coolers has a camera.” They can tell when the cooler needs to be replenished. They are going through incredible transformation using this new technology. Everywhere I go, I see this transformation. I recently stayed at Marriott. I’m a member of their loyalty program. But loyalty is dead. Now we’re on journey. Customer journeys, transformation journeys. They can even give me my key on my phone now. That’s what all of us are doing, trying to connect better with our customers.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a product or services company, I see this transformation everywhere I go. Behind all these things – smart elevators, hotels, watches and suites, everything – is a customer. That’s what all of us do. We’re working to connect with our customers in an incredible new way. This is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We’re connected to customers in new ways using these next-gen technologies and it’s incredible.

But still the underlying questions remain and need to be addressed:

Are we more connected or somehow less connected?

This is where it becomes a rallying cry to the Salesforce faithful. The Ohana needs mobilizing to action to make this a succesful and bloodless revolution. To that end, Benioff left Dreamforce attendees in no doubt about their responsibilties in this debate:

It’s about the equality of every human being. When we see discrimination happening anywhere in the world, Trailblazers came forward and help change it. We’re committed to diversity and equality. We have to look at our boards of directors, management, and employees.

That’s why I’m inspired about Dreamforce – because of all of you, our Trailblazers. You’re shaping this future. I’m trusting this future to you. I know you’re going to make it great. You have all these amazing tools at your fingertips.

My take

Here at diginomica, we’ve made no secret of our support for the stand on ethical and moral issues that Salesforce has taken over issues such as LGBTQ discrimination or ensuring equal pay for women in organizations.

It’s a lead that has rallied followers and inspired others in the tech industry. While there are some providers who remain lamentably silent, Salesforce has taken a bold stand in some of the most important debates in society.

There are big questions that we all need to tackle if the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to result in the kind of digital society that we would want to live in.

I don’t imagine anyone’s going to leave Dreamforce later this week thinking that they’ve got the answer to all (any?) of this. But I’ll wager that a fair few might be heading home with a few more things to think about and that’s a good start. And you know, questions can be more interesting than answers anyway…