Asia’s AI agenda: The ethics of AI

July 10, 2019
On balance, Asian business leaders are optimistic about AI’s positive effect on their businesses, societies, and individual well-being, a new study finds.

Globally, future outlooks for artificial intelligence (AI) swing between two extremes—excited anticipation about the positive impact AI will have on economies and societies, and deepening fear of its potential to disrupt livelihoods and do harm. In Asia, governments and civil society groups are concerned about defining regulatory frameworks to guard against the latter, and all ecosystem experts are grappling with how to steer AI toward the former, more socially advantageous directions. On balance, however, the Asian business leaders surveyed for this report have great optimism about AI’s positive effect on their businesses, societies, and individual well-being.

This new report, combining an Asia-wide executive survey with expert interviews from industry, government, and academia, takes the pulse of public and private actors in the AI ethics debate in the region. The key findings of the report are:

  • AI will be a major growth driver for Asia in the coming decade. The company priorities for AI are to enhance customer satisfaction, speed up decision-making, and reduce inefficiencies. The loss of some roles to automation, and the restructuring of others to take advantage of technology-created capacity, are likely. Yet reducing headcount is not a top priority in and of itself. Just one-third of survey respondents listed the need to reduce labor costs as a top-three driver for AI.
  • Biases within AI tools are potentially dangerous for Asia—but biases about AI’s use in Asia could be even more so. Asia’s AI ecosystem participants are aware of and concerned about the potential for embedded biases (race, gender, or socio-economic status) within AI tools, and the harm this can cause through facilitating over- policing of minority communities, or economic exclusion. Weaponization and malicious use of AI are also ethical concerns in Asia as applications are increasingly commoditized and industrialized. While Asian decision-makers are concerned about a potentially negative impact, particularly where jobs are concerned, optimism is the more dominant sentiment, which will propel the use of AI in Asia.
  • Asian governments are building institutional capacity and frameworks to increase AI governance—but have yet to develop regulations. Overwhelmingly, more survey respondents believe Asia will lead the world in the development of ethics and governance than any other region: 45%, as compared to only a quarter who see North America as the ethics front- runner. Across the region, from Singapore to Japan and China, governments are assembling AI institutions to guide governance, often consulting with the private sector and civil society.
  • Asian respondents are engaged in AI ethics discussions and see a constructive role for governments. Just under half (42%) of participants say there is “vigorous debate” on ethical issues surrounding AI in their company, and the majority (55%) think AI should be government-regulated. Both Asia’s governments and its businesses are committed to maximizing AI’s benefits, so the fact that talent availability is the region’s top AI deployment challenge (according to 58% of respondents) suggests that those with AI skills will wield significant bargaining power in the debate which lies ahead.
  • AI-driven unemployment narratives are counterbalanced by the potential to enhance and augment human work. Many survey respondents share one of the world’s biggest ethical fears—that the unchecked use of AI will result in massive loss of jobs and livelihoods; 42% believe that the rise of AI in Asia will destroy more jobs than it will create. However, other survey responses reveal that Asian business leaders are not overly concerned about job loss in their own organizations, and they believe that AI will benefit their employees. The majority (59%) of respondents believe their employees’ job roles have been enhanced since the introduction of AI.

The previous parts of this series, “The ecosystem”, “AI for business,” and “AI and human capital” explore, respectively, Asian governments’ plans for leadership in AI, how businesses are responding, and the potential impact of AI on the workforce.