In recent months the tech industry’s stance on ethical issues has been under the spotlight more than ever, in large part due to President Trump’s controversial ‘zero tolerance’ policies around border control and the separation of families. Both Microsoft and Salesforce have been caught up in collateral damage from that.
Elsewhere, concerns about the potential misuse of bleeding edge tech, such as facial recognition systems and autonomous computing, have been aired, often by activist employees of companies such as Amazon and Google. Most recently Google has seen protests from employees around the firm’s alleged intent to create a search engine for China.
The message is clear - while there is enormous opportunity to be derived from the kind of technologies that will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is also a high level of awareness of what damage might result if there is not careful consideration of rules and standards to guide their development and use.
Of course, as the old cliche goes, the great thing about a standard is that there are so many to choose from - and that’s the case with, for example, Artificial Intelligence and robotics. There are standards and policy working groups at national government level, within the United Nations, at the European Commission and the World Economic Forum, across academia and trade associations and on and on.
Yesterday saw an interesting development with the inaugural meeting of the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. What’s an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology? Well, let’s start with the words of Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff:
Discussions we have had with our Ohana over the past few weeks have raised larger questions about not just the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what’s happening, but also about how our values and our core values apply to the use of Fourth Industrial Revolution technology and also any unintended consequences of their use. We’ve seen this discussion take place in many companies. As well, we can see that happening today on the news cycle. It’s been amplified by the amazing recent progress in Artificial Intelligence and especially Deep Learning.
Now, here at Salesforce, we have determined that this ethical and humane use of technology, especially within this context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, must be clearly addressed, not only by us, but by our entire industry. Our industry has reached an inflection point that must be supported by a strong set of guiding values. We all know that and you see that every single day. We know the technology is not inherently good or bad. It’s what we do with it that matters. And that’s why we’re making the ethical and humane use of technology, a strategic initiative at Salesforce.
This is where the new office comes into play:
We will work with all of our Ohana, including our customers, our employees, our partners as well as industry groups and thought leaders and experts in this area to encourage, promote and publish and implement industry standards guidelines and living frameworks around the ethical and humane use of technology. This incredible aspect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution was the way forward not just for our industry, but for humanity. We have to make sure that technology strengthens our societies, instead of weakening them. Technology needs to improve the human tradition, not undermine it.
Yesterday’s meeting was an opening discussion, in large part setting the scene for what’s to come. While details have been thin on the ground, the meeting saw Salesforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet talk attendees through an 'Ethical Use Roadmap', which covers off topics such as raising awareness among key stakeholders and the development of guiding principles. The intent is to produce a ‘Living Framework’ for implementation of ‘Principles-based Action’. All of this will be an ongoing process with the intention being to make sure there’s best practice of continual learning.
This ‘Ethical Trailblazing’ will be supported by an ‘Ohana Council’, made up of Salesforce leaders as well as external advisors and experts, from organizations including Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell Tech and Georgetown Law among others. The inaugural meeting heard from Danielle Cass, Director of the Amnesty International Silicon Valley Initiative, and Kathy Pham of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, in discussion with April Oliver, Salesforce's Associate General Counsel, Office of Ethics & Integrity. That gives some idea of the high quality of advisers that are being tapped into.
This is an interesting and welcome move. Philanthropy, as Benioff has pointed out many times and will again at this year’s Dreamforce, has been a core value of Salesforce from the beginning and the Salesforce Foundation is a success story that has led others to emulate it.
Equality matters have also been hardwired into the corporate DNA, with potentially risky (in a commercial sense) stands being taken against bigoted anti-LGBTQ legislation in a number of US states, and the commitment to equalize pay levels across the firm. And of course, Salesforce appointed Prophet to the role of Chief Equality Officer.
Most recently the company has been criticised for working with US Customs and Border Protection, both by its own Ohana and by some customers and external agencies. Salesforce is adamant that its tech is not being used to support separation of families, but the controversy rumbles on, with threats by some of protests at Dreamforce.
This is something that the firm needs to get ahead of - when even coffee companies are chipping in their views, it’s problematic - but the creation of this new office isn’t a token gesture reaction to that. In fact, it’s the logical next step in a long-standing conversation in which Benioff in particular has played a steering role.
At last year’s Dreamforce, he took time during his keynote to issue an ethical rallying cry to the audience - the extended Ohana of customers and partners - in which he said:
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.
Earlier this year, at the United Nations in New York, he voiced his concerns about unguided and ill-considered use of new technologies, saying:
People do have a right to be worried. I worry about it myself. I worry about those who don’t understand the technology and the innovation and how it’s going to impact them. That’s what we’re doing here today. We’re thinking about them. We’re thinking about how are we going to work together to solve these complex issues.
That’s the context against which this new development needs to be placed. It’s an ongoing debate that has become more and more complex and which has reached a tipping point in the industry such that companies delivering on the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution need to take time for thoughtful consideration.
The devil’s in the detail of course and how Salesforce executes on the basic good idea of this new office will determine its success. This needs to deliver actions and not just be a discussion forum, useful though that might be, and those actions need to set an example for other tech leaders to follow, just as the 1/1/1 philanthropy policy has. The way the firm has made good on its equality initiatives bodes well here - although we might note, with tongue firmly in cheek, that if Salesforce ends up appointing a Chief Ethics Officer, that’ll be the fourth CEO the firm has!
I imagine we’ll hear more about this initiative at the forthcoming Dreamforce conference, but for now, based on what’s known so far, mark this down as a good thing.