Ethics…. for Tech Folks? from Katherine Zhou (T’17), “Design Ethically” Founder and IBM’er

zhou techtalk closeMonday afternoon, students, staff and faculty representing interests in technology and public policy gathered to hear Duke alumna Katherine Zhou present a masterclass on ethics as a critical piece of technology design.  Zhou’s lunchtime TechTalk entitled “Ethical Tech: Moral Imperative to Actionable Steps” was the third in a regular series sponsored by Kenan’s Technically Right program.  Margaret Hu, visiting faculty at Kenan and Associate Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, introduced Zhou as a product designer at IBM, the founder of <Design Ethically>, and as an expert in incorporating ethics into the design of A.I. systems.

Zhou began her talk by describing why ethics is sorely needed in today’s world of rapid technological advancement. She displayed a screen full of headlines illustrating more than a dozen occurrences where tech companies have been caught in unscrupulous business practices or misusing  customer data, even further pointing to China’s mass surveillance and Social Credit System now being implemented.  With high-profile stories in the US centered around the manipulation of users and their data, while Congress stumbles through questioning Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Zhou points out that industry is operating with little oversight – far beyond government policy and regulation.  Therefore, she argues, the movement to develop ethical practices in our society must begin within and by challenging the notion that business growth belongs at the epicenter of success. Collectively and from all angles, we must work to dismantle the system that encourages companies to prioritize profits over people.  Zhou challenges: “What is more human-centric than making ethical choices to benefit our users?  What is more society-centric than making ethical choices to benefit our society? What is more eco-centric than making ethical choices to benefit our ecosystem?”  To this end, Zhou also emphasizes the power of the individual consumer in influencing ethical decision-making by tech developers.

Facing head-on the challenge of how to apply ethics in tech design, Zhou created <Design Ethically> to establish a framework and toolkit that empowers designers to pave the way for ethical decision-making in tech and provides a library of resources to help integrate ethical design. Her work is also evident at the core of IBM’s Everyday Ethics for AI, where artificial intelligence designers are being educated in the ethical areas of accountability, value alignment, explainability, fairness, and user data rights. 

“I developed <Design Ethically> to address my own urgent question of how product teams in the tech industry could integrate ethics into their practices. Aside from speaking on ethics in tech all over the world, I’ve been able to pilot my framework and toolkit with artificial intelligence teams at IBM through our Enterprise Design Thinking course on ‘Team Essentials for AI.'”

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For Zhou, reimagining tech today is likened to other forms of activism where the existing norms must be made problematic and alternatives to those norms must be invented and creatively practiced.  She again pointed to a screen full of headlines, this time exemplifying instances where tech employees have stood up to unethical practices – staging walkouts and executing social-media campaigns.  In order to scale and mature this tech ethics movement, she tasks the industry with ensuring schools and programs teach ethics, developing new metrics to gauge performance, and reevaluating practices to recruit employees.  Zhou also urges companies to upskill their workforce, conduct ethical audits, and grant amnesty to workers who speak out against them. Individuals should continue to be self-informed, define their values, and be confident with saying “no” to situations of unethical behavior.

The TechTalk closed with a question and answer opportunity.  When asked how she developed her interest and foundation in ethics, Zhou commented:

“Though I published <Design Ethically> in 2018, my journey truly started in 2013, when I kicked off my undergraduate years at Duke and joined the Kenan Institute for Ethics through its Focus program, ‘Ethics, Leadership & Global Citizenship.’ I fell in love with the program and would later go on to participate in Kenan’s DukeEngage summer program in Dublin and the Alternative Spring Break in the Dominican Republic. The insights that I learned from the classes I took, the faculty I met, the peers I encountered, and the experiences I underwent have stayed with me and continue to shape my view of the world.”

Zhou’s presentation slides are available for review here.

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Please join the next in this series of talks, “Ethics on the Inside: Anticipating Challenges for Emerging Tech Industries,”  Monday, October 2st with Christopher Daniels (E’98, B’05), former head of WhatsApp and VP of Business Development at Facebook.

Technically Right advances ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework for undergraduates and graduate students, and convenings of scholars and practitioners.