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Why every AI company should have an ethics policy - and here’s ours

Artificial Intelligence

AI companies have a social responsibility to consumers to be open about what exactly they are doing with this technology - and how. Phrasee is proud to be one of the first companies in the world working in AI for marketing to do so. We’re taking the lead and codifying what we believe to be an ethical way to run an AI business, and have drawn up an ethics policy that is practical, specific and explicit.

It is surprising AI ethics policies aren’t more commonplace and that we appear to be one of the few companies not only promoting what we believe in, but also putting our head above the parapet about it. If the wider marketing community is to realise the commercial benefits of AI, we also need to put the fundamentals in place and collectively drive an ethical marketing agenda. This starts with committing to paper what we will and won’t do for the greater good.

We won’t: use data to target vulnerable populations, promote the use of negative emotions to exploit people or work with customers whose values don’t align with ours.

We will: take action to avoid prejudice and bias, be open about what our AI does and stick to our values, pledging not to change our ethics policy, though we may add to it when required. We think of it like our constitution.

“Marketers are getting a bad rap recently and are a victim of their own actions because for years they have been encouraged to use spurious tactics to get people to buy more stuff,” explains Parry Malm, Phrasee founder and CEO.

“I remember working for one company, which shall remain nameless, and our CEO used to ‘encourage’ us by telling us that people buy because of fear or greed. So, to get them to buy from us, we were told to make them scared or make them feel greedy. And even back then I thought what a negative and cynical way of looking at people.”

Writing in The Entrepreneur, digital marketer Aaron Haynes says that only ethical marketing will stand the test of time and is critical for business success.

“Any business perceived to lack ethics is seen as a reflection lacking a moral compass, having doubtful product quality and holding no corporate community concern. When a lack of ethics becomes public knowledge, businesses lose credibility.”

Once credibility is lost, a business can quite simply go to the wall. Or even if it does recover, a lot of resources are consumed as it tries to restore its image and regain consumer trust, he explains. “Just try to buy Enron stock.”

And the call for high ethical standards is only going to get louder. A recent survey carried out by financial protection providers Aflac found that 92% of millennial consumers are more likely to buy products from ethical companies. And 82% of those consumers believe ethical brands outperform similar companies that lack a commitment to ethical principles.

“It is high time that marketers took responsibility for their actions and realise there is more to what we do than just selling a few more widgets,” says Parry. “We actually bear a social responsibility and if marketers want to create enduring relationships with customers they need to stop treating people like bottomless pits of surplus to extract. They need to move away from using fear and anxiety to sell more products and take a more positive approach.”

In a high-tech world, having a strong ethical approach is more important than ever, says Phrasee co-founder and COO, Victoria Peppiatt.

"It’s so important to educate consumers about how companies are using AI. As an AI marketing tech company, we have the responsibility of using AI transparently, so that consumers understand why and how we're using the technology to better experiences, rather than supporting negative engagement. AI ethics policies are the future for all tech companies, which is why I'm so proud that Phrasee is leading the way with our open approach to AI ethics."

The AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? report recently published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence – to which Parry was invited to contribute, presenting evidence at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Artificial Intelligence at the House of Parliament – for the UK industry to put ethics at the centre of AI’s development and use. The Chairman of the Committee, Lord Clement-Jones, said: “The UK has a unique opportunity to shape AI positively for the public’s benefit and to lead the international community in AI’s ethical development, rather than passively accept its consequences.”

So it seems we’re all on the same page here. And at Phrasee, we’re keen to lead the charge, kicking if off with our ethics policy, pledging not to use technology to explicitly exploit vulnerable populations.

“We could be like everyone else in our messages and say, ‘If you don’t do this, you could be in big trouble’, says Parry. But things will never change unless someone takes a stand. That’s why we’re taking a positive approach, encouraging the industry to look at the positivity it can bring to the world instead of focusing on the negative stuff.”

Along with The Drum, we believe that marketing can change the world. And, just like them, we’re calling on the industry to consider the effect its work has on the world at large. It’s time to start the debate. Will you join us?