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The Next Economy
SB’19 Paris, Day 3:
Confidence, Cautionary Tales About a Tech-Driven Future

As SB’19 Paris wound down to a close, two thought-provoking roundtables on Tech, Science and Ethics explored conflicting views regarding a rise in AI applications; and how, for the next generation of purpose-driven startups, not all investors are created equal.

Who is responsible for the ethical use of AI?

This Tech, Science and Ethics session opening the third and final day at SB’19 Paris brought the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to life with a real-world example. Picking up the Daily Mail while in the UK on Tuesday, Dunstan Allison-Hope — Managing Director at BSR — noticed the headline “Secretly filmed while you shop.” The story claims that some of Britain's biggest stores record their customers in order to use footage to 'manipulate' behaviour. This well illustrates that while AI could be a significant force for good, there are increasing concerns about privacy and the potential negative consequences for society and individuals.

Whose responsibility is it to protect ethical and human rights, as AI systems become more widely used? Is it solely the role of the technology companies developing the systems, or should other industries and individuals play a role in ensuring the responsible use of AI?

Jean-Yves Art, Senior Director Strategic Partnerships at Microsoft, said: “The way I see it is, the worst that can happen with AI systems is a lack of accountability regarding AI systems and human rights. At Microsoft, we realise that because AI systems are making decisions, we need to comply with a number of ethical principles. We don’t always achieve it but we try to ensure fairness to everybody, without discrimination, safety, security, along with transparency, so people can understand how the decision has been made.”

Art also outlined how the company aims to use AI for good. “Over the last two years, we launched AI for Good, where Microsoft partners with third parties in three areas — sustainability and environmental protection, accessibility and humanitarian action.”

On the one hand, it is easy to see the social benefits of AI: For instance, Microsoft has developed the Seeing AI tool — a talking camera app for those with visual impairment. “Imagine getting out of a taxi in Paris with no vision. This tool narrates what is around the person, so they know what is in the street,” Art enthused.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns about how AI facial recognition is used. Elodie Nowinski, Dean of the Faculty of Creative Industries at the City of Glasgow College, worries about the downside of facial recognition — for example, shoppers being mistaken for criminal shoplifters. “Before launching new technology, why don’t you use social scientists to ask what is behind it, and what could be done wrong?” she asked. Art indicated that this indeed is being addressed.

Nowinski also pointed to the creative vision of artists to help predict the negative impact of AI. She urged: “We should be looking to artists to see how AI could be used — for example, ‘Black Mirror’ showed how things could go.”

Conversely and controversially, she put the onus of responsibility on individuals: “Take your own responsibility. You are not a victim. As long as you are on Facebook or other platforms, you know what is happening. Stop being naïve. If you don’t want your data to be shared, don’t give it to them.”

This simplistic approach was met with red cards from the Youth Hacktivators in the audience, who waved green and red cards to indicate whether they liked or disliked a comment.

Allison-Hope concluded: “A lot of technology companies are very active in addressing responsible use of AI, but AI is deployed outside of the technology industry. There needs to be more engagement with other industries — for example, retailers, transportation and financial services.”

As ever, it seems that many actors are needed to play their part in ensuring ethical use.

Chasing investment is about more than chasing money

The two different notions of ‘being rich’ and ‘doing good’ are not common bedfellows. It was a point made by Viva Technology’s managing director, Maxime Baffert, as he set the tone for one of the concluding sessions at Sustainable Brands Paris.

This Tech, Science and Ethics roundtable heard from three startups keen to raise money for their tech-based companies, but with the sole purpose of creating positive impact.

Doconomy is a mobile banking service that allows users to track their carbon footprint associated with the purchases they make, and then compensate for the impact by investing in fossil-free sustainable funds, for example.

IMPAK uses a cryptocurrency platform to incentivise consumers to buy from selected stores and restaurants that are creating positive change — from zero-waste grocery outlets, to cleaning products and tool libraries.

Ride-sharing app Karos is designed to support those living in more rural areas in reducing their carbon footprint and their reliance on a car. So far, its users have clocked some two million rides.

While all three startups are happy with the progress made, there is a real desire to go further, faster by teaming up with bigger businesses. “We need to stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Doconomy co-founder Mathias Wikstrom. “It’s all about collaboration. We got into this mess together, we need to get out of it together.”

Karos founder Olivier Binet agreed. To scale — and make more money and have more positive impact — it needs bigger companies and local governments to get behind the technology. “In many cases, our contracts with corporates arise because people approach their HR teams and say, ‘this is fantastic.’ It helps them to reduce their CO2 and save money on gas — it just makes sense.”

So, how do these startups measure the positive impacts they are creating? And do their investors really care about ESG issues, or are they still focused on traditional startup metrics? For Binet, his investors are still preoccupied on standard measurements, such as user numbers. “But that doesn’t matter; the more users we have, the more positive environmental impact we will have.”

For Estelle Leroux Joky, Impact Capital Explorer at IMPAK, KPIs are crucial. “We have developed a tool to score the impact of any business — and we have KPIs based on that, as a baseline for proving the impact we are creating and to show improvement in future.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between for-impact startups and traditional, growth-motivated startups is that chasing investment is not just about chasing money.

“KPIs are good, not only for tracking monetary progress, but in determining whether an investor is a good investor or not,” Wikstrom said. “They need to share your ethos and understand what you are trying to achieve.”