Walking the Walk of AI Ethics: Organizational Challenges and the Individualization of Risk among Ethics Entrepreneurs

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Amidst decline in public trust in technology, computing ethics have taken center stage, and critics have raised questions about corporate ethics washing. Yet few studies examine the actual implementation of AI ethics values in technology companies. Based on a qualitative analysis of technology workers tasked with integrating AI ethics into product development, we find that workers experience an environment where policies, practices, and outcomes are decoupled. We analyze AI ethics workers as ethics entrepreneurs who work to institutionalize new ethics-related practices within organizations. We show that ethics entrepreneurs face three major barriers to their work. First, they struggle to have ethics prioritized in an environment centered around software product launches. Second, ethics are difficult to quantify in a context where company goals are incentivized by metrics. Third, the frequent reorganization of teams makes it difficult to access knowledge and maintain relationships central to their work. Consequently, individuals take on great personal risk when raising ethics issues, especially when they come from marginalized backgrounds. These findings shed light on complex dynamics of institutional change at technology companies.

Ryan Watkins