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Why artificial intelligence needs ethical “guide rails”

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Artificial intelligence (AI) has a great deal of potential but also harbors many risks. To ensure this new key technology can deliver its positive potential for us humans, it requires an ethical framework. We therefore established binding internal guidelines for AI at Deutsche Telekom. And were one of the first companies in the world to do so. Not only that: We actively tackle the questions raised by digitalization. The catchphrase is Digital Responsibility. The question we are asking is “what kind of digital world do we want to live in tomorrow?” This is the issue that needs to be discussed.

Robot holding a butterfly

Intelligent algorithms, robots, and computers are ultimately only a tool and, as such, neutral. Consequently, it’s up to us to use them positively.

Artificial intelligence is more than a technology

The impact of AI should not be underestimated – it can have positive as well as negative effects. The relevance of AI in our everyday lives may be hardly recognizable to many people yet, but in reality just about everyone encounters it daily, for example, in navigation systems, Google searches, purchase recommendations, and in apps that tell us which bus or train to take. Deutsche Telekom also relies on AI, as a chatbot in service, for maintenance support at T-Systems, and in products such as Connect app, and the upcoming Smart Speaker.

Why does Deutsche Telekom have ethical principles in place for AI?

As with all new technologies, AI opens the door to many opportunities, but it also involves challenges. Just think about the adoption of human prejudices by algorithms, or the question as to whether a bot should be recognizable as such. Another issue is the black box problem (you put data in and get a computed result, but you don’t actually know how the AI system came up with the result).

Deutsche Telekom addresses such questions and many others in public discussions of relevance to the growth of digitalization. That's why Manuela Mackert, our Chief Compliance Officer, and her team contacted all units at Deutsche Telekom that use AI and contribute to the development and design of this technology. These units are comprised of specialists from Technology and Innovation, as well as Telekom Innovation Laboratories, IT Security, Data Privacy, Finance, and Service, not to mention T-Systems. The objective: To develop a digital ethics policy governing the use of AI.

What are the guidelines all about?

These guidelines are binding internal guidelines aligned with our business models. They define how we at Deutsche Telekom should use AI and how we should develop our AI-based products and services in the future. The underlying idea is that intelligent algorithms, robots, and computers are ultimately only a tool and, as such, neutral. Consequently, it’s up to us to use them positively, without ignoring the risks, and to handle them responsibly.

To ensure that this new technology is indeed applied positively, we have conducted many extensive discussions within the Group and with other business enterprises, experts, and institutions involved in AI in Germany, the United States, and Israel. Our contacts have included Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Stanford, the Open AI Initiative, Allen Institute, and the Partnership on AI. We are proud to be one of the first Groups worldwide to define self-binding AI policies and principles that will guide our actions.

Our approach: nine principles for AI ethics

These policies are based on the maxim that artificial intelligence should support our actions. The technology should help people and increase their abilities. Here are some selected points:

  • We are responsible.
    Clear definition of who is responsible for which AI system.
  • We are transparent.
    Transparency about how we use customer data and AI.
  • We are secure.
    Our customers’ data is protected against unwanted external access.
  • We maintain control?
    Continuous readiness to interfere in AI systems to prevent and/or reduce damage.

And these are just a few examples. All nine guidelines are available here.

Of course, we do not claim that our guidelines are some kind of silver bullet. However, we do want to develop these guidelines further through continuing discussions that will help us achieve a broad consensus.

Nobody can mandate digital responsibility

However, intelligent systems are only one example of the types of technology that digitalization entails. Deutsche Telekom’s networks provide the basis of ongoing digitalization and, as a result, the Group is one of the drivers of the process. For three years now, we have been discussing the impacts and consequences of digitalization under the motto “Are we stumbling blindly into digitalization? We need digital responsibility!”. What are the opportunities and risks of digitalization? What are the associated hopes and fears? The main idea: To deal with the question of exactly what shape digital responsibility is going to take. No one individual can ordain that shape by decree – nor can any one company, any one institution, or any one government make that call. We can only develop and put digital responsibility into practice together. As part of the initiative, we consult a large number of experts from the worlds of science, industry, and politics.

We want as many people as possible to speak about digitalization and to form an opinion. You can find all content online at Digital responsibility. We are also active on social media under #digitalduty.

How can companies assume digital responsibility?

The objective is for digital responsibility to become a key element of our actions. Therefore, Deutsche Telekom has joined the “Corporate Digital Responsibility initiative [LINK] launched by the former Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Katarina Barley. Together with Miele, Otto Group, SAP, Telefónica Deutschland, and DIE ZEIT, we want to lay the foundation for the responsible conduct by businesses in the digital world. What do we need to consider now to ensure that the future is secure? The goal is a voluntary commitment by companies – everything mentioned above is only the beginning. We are only just starting to discuss the concrete meaning of Corporate Digital Responsibility and what we need to take into consideration today. And Deutsche Telekom wants to continue this discussion, not only in Germany but on an international level too. Manuela Mackert is a member of the working group “AI, labor, and the economy” of the “Partnership on AI” initiative.

Young woman meets Robot

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