Ethics is particularly important for the accountancy profession, with a code for professional ethics based on five basic principles – integrity, objectivity, competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour. However, the emergence of new technologies raises some new challenges for the profession to address.
The increasing use of big data, algorithmic decision-making and artificial intelligence can enable more consistent, evidence-based and accurate judgments or decisions, often more quickly and efficiently. However, these strengths can potentially have a darker side too, throwing up questions around the ethical use of these fairly new technologies.
For example, outputs can be based on biased data, which could lead to discriminatory outcomes. Indeed, where systems learn from real world data, there is a significant risk that those systems simply recreate the past and subsequently build in errors or systemic biases. Closely linked to discrimination is personalisation, and the impact of tailoring decisions very specifically to individuals, based on preferences, activities and other features. While this can be beneficial for many, others can lose out, and outcomes can again seem unfair or unethical.
Additionally, questions are being asked regarding the interaction between computers and humans. How much reliance can we place on data and models, and what is the role of human judgement, as well as how do we ensure that we understand the decision-making process? Whatever the power of machine, humans will still need to be involved, so that people can be held accountable, or explain the reasons behind a decision.
The above mentioned five core principles of the code of ethics will remain highly relevant in the face of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence, but the accountancy profession is confronted with addressing new challenges, such as creating training models to produce outcomes which reflect these ethical principles.
The core principles are also relevant to other professions or technical specialists that are exploring ethical questions around technology. The accountancy profession can provide advice on this wider focus on ethics, sharing its experience of embedding ethics in an organisation and training people to think about ethics. It can also contribute to new thinking about the governance and assurance needed around algorithms and AI, so that all stakeholders can have confidence in their appropriate use.
ICAEW is undertaking a wide range of work across the theme of ethics and new technologies, considering the impact on the accountancy code of ethics, businesses, audit and other areas of accountancy practice.
ICAEW’s financial services faculty is looking at how firms and consumers can deal with the challenges presented by a big data world. Big data presents unique challenges for banks, insurers, investment managers and payments businesses.
The faculty has produced three case studies to illustrate just a few of the ethical aspects of big data use by financial services firms, looking at insurance, banking and credit cards.
On 25 May 2018, ICAEW hosted a roundtable to discuss the implications on the ethical principles of technological change and whether new technologies present a threat to the code of ethics and whether the code of ethics may need updating. It also discussed our interaction with machines and how firms can ensure their systems are adhering to ethical principles. The event included participants from a range of different sized firms including Big4, mid-tier, smaller practices and academia.
David Lyford-Smith urges gatherers and users of big data to always keep ethics in mind. Not only will your clients thank you, but it will also keep you ahead of the regulators.
“Big data” are the buzzwords across industry and practice right now. More and more organisations are looking into doing it, and as tools improve and become cheaper, more and more can get their hands on the tools to analyse the enormous volumes of data that our modern society generates and tracks. The GDPR that came into force in May 2018, has also has drawn attention to what not to do with data.
Will robots steal your job? Can artificial intelligence elevate the professional’s position? David Adams looks at the ethical implications of AI on business and accountancy. For decades, portrayals of artificial intelligence (AI) in popular culture have warned us that if we ever created genuinely “intelligent” machines, they might decide we were surplus to their requirements. Prominent voices in the fields of science and technology have also expressed misgivings: Stephen Hawking suggested humans would be “superseded” by AI; Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that, “with artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon”.