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Measuring corporate accountability in an era of audacious bots

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We live in exciting times of unprecedented progress. Automation has a significant role in propelling human advancement, and digital transformation is the new status quo.

RPA, AI, and cognitive machine learning technologies are in the hands of business leaders as they command a new digital workforce. But as we cut costs and focus on error-free transactions and new service models, there are human workforces — our people — to consider.

Business leadership is on the frontlines of an urgent ethical discussion about well, human-ness in a time of accelerating automation. We must talk about the responsibility leadership has in creating this human-robot world of work — in embracing the audacity of bots. History will judge us by the difference we make in the lives of humans.

“Bot audacity” refers to the expectation that robots will outperform humans, execute cognitive functions, and think — the most human of skills — which in turn makes our workforces fear and resist this change.

To address this, we need to start a dialog on corporate leadership in this era of audacious bots to inspire further exploration.

Leadership’s moral mandate

Ken Goodpaster, Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas, pioneered corporate responsibility. Not just standard corporate social responsibility, but mission-driven organizations holding themselves accountable for their social impact. Goodpaster’s model brings the externality of moral value into the economic formula for an organization with three core principles:

  1. Orient the company toward important moral values
  2. Embed values in processes and practices
  3. Make these values an enduring part of the firm’s identity

To put this in context of audacious bots: How will a human-bot workforce evolve the value systems, processes, and practices of your organization?

What determines the moral values for the digital enterprise? Do we tie robots to human success — that is, a good robot is one that better enables a human?

As leaders, we must balance what is best not only for our customers, employees, and shareholders, but also for society as a whole.

The ethics of the future of work

The digital enterprise is economically desirable. However, the moral discussion is essential. This is a potential pivot point determining the trajectory of our collective digital future. How do we as leaders weigh in on the ethics of this amalgamated human-bot workforce? Is this future not just economically desirable but morally justified?

The foundation of modern economic and legal approaches, systematized by Jeremy Bentham, is the concept of maximizing utility. Put simply: If a decision maximizes pleasure and/or minimizes pain not only for ourselves but for others as well, then it is morally right. This approach has allowed us to justify decisions, especially controversial ones.

In the context of our audacious bots, assess for yourselves if we serve humans better:

  • By enabling the human workforce with bots that take over mundane tasks?
  • By advancing human progress by making more things possible?
  • By reskilling and creating jobs that we didn’t know existed?

Consider these questions along two axes:

  • Can bots deliver a better corporate future?
  • Will a human-bot workforce better serve our corporate agenda?

And in the wider view of humanity:

  • Are we enabling humans to be better off collectively, in the long term?

My answer to these questions is Yes. But only if we deliver with a consistent focus on humans.

Ethical sustainability of human values

On this journey of progress, I urge you to keep one concept at the forefront of your strategic decisions: the future ethical sustainability of human values.

It means two things:

  1. Continuing to value humans and their contributions.
  2. Sustaining the values that define us: empathy, kindness, joy, respect, grit, etc.

Are we able to sustain the value we place on humans and their contributions, embodied by the traits that make us human? Think of the tenacious scientist dedicated to a finding a cure, or an employee working late to ensure on-time delivery (remember, they are not 24/7 robots).

As a start, inject these dialogs into your own organizations:

  • Will bots better serve customers, employees, and society?
  • How do we ensure humans are better off in the long term?
  • Are we reskilling the displaced human workforce?
  • Are we encouraging processes to be human-centric?
  • Do organizational goals allow focus on human-ness?
  • What metrics place value on human contribution?

What gets measured will define our direction. If we hold ourselves to account for ethical sustainability, I believe we will succeed in this chapter of human progress. And history will witness a betterment of human life.

Neeti Mehta Shukla is a cofounder of Automation Anywhere, a cognitive robotic process automation platform designed to automate any business process in the modern enterprise.

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