The first meeting of the Future Talent Leaders' Club saw 80 senior leaders join us for a debate on the effects of social media in society and business
Is social media bad for us in ways we’re just beginning to comprehend, or is it naïve to think that we can unwind the digital giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon from our lives?
These were the issues under the spotlight at Changeboard’s inaugural Future Talent Leaders’ Club, designed to provide “efficient, engaging nuggets of learning for senior leaders”.
Posing the question “Is it time to delete your Facebook account”, as a route into a broader discussion, the event was chaired by Lord Chris Homes of Richmond, a member of the House of Lords’ Artificial Intelligence (AI) Select Committee, and attended by an invited audience of HR leaders.
The panel comprised Lord Jim Knight, chief education adviser at TES Global, Tracey Groves, CEO of Intelligent Ethics, Kenneth Cukier, senior editor at The Economist, and Lord Tim Clement-Jones, a consultant of the global law firm DLA Piper, and former chair of the Lords’ Select Committee on AI.
Opening the debate, Lord Clement-Jones admitted that social media has created “huge mistrust in a very short space of time”, asserting that we are in “an ethical and regulatory race for time”.
“Social media platforms were supposed to make information freer and easier to share; to advantage the citizen at the expense of governments,” he said. “The reverse is true in many cases.”
With growing public concern about micro-targeting and algorithm bias, he believes that “more and more businesses will need to think about adopting ethical codes of conduct, ethical advisory boards, responsible innovation training and ethical audit to ensure transparency”.
His sentiment was shared by Groves who agrees that business leaders have a role to “nudge for good” when it comes to machine learning and AI. She pointed out the disturbing power of today’s tech giants; together, Apple and Amazon are worth more than the top 10 oil companies combined.
“Is it time to delete FB? We’ve missed the boat,” she stated. “Technological advancement has become such that we don’t have a choice. However, it’s not too late to make some interventions about how it’s deployed and how we can monitor and govern it.”
She also acknowledged the “wealth of richness” AI will bring.
These incredible benefits should be celebrated, reminded Kenneth Cukier, explaining: “There are pathologies within everything, but we identify and fix those problems.”
Likening the emergence of social media to the invention of the printing press, he applauded the fact that “absolutely anyone can say absolutely anything?
“We don’t have the mechanisms, conventions and practices to use this freedom responsibly; we need wise constraints that will enable us to get the benefits, but rather than arguing about deleting our Facebook account we should be celebrating where we are today,” he said.
Duty of care
Focusing on the issue of privacy – and his own inconsistency as an Apple watch-wearing, Alexa-using tech evangelist – Lord Knight called for greater user protection, empowerment and a proliferation of channels to counter the domination of the big tech players.
He called for a “duty of care” to be placed on these organisations to moderate their behaviour, and highlighted the potential for GDPR rights and Blockchain technology to give users personal control over their data. Collectively owned ‘data trusts’ would provide users with choice.
He added that now might indeed be the time to delete Facebook: “If enough of us do it, Facebook will have to sit up and take notice,” he said. “Then we’d start to see the evolution of the digital world.”
Advice to leaders
The panel’s combined advice to peers on getting the best out of social media included “asking questions of the engineering community” and demanding an “ethical filter” on innovations.
“Don’t leave the technology to the technologists,” stressed Lord Clement-Jones. There’s going to be a huge role for HR in this area. Organisations need to demonstrate that their use of AI is unbiased, thought through and transparent: all that’s going to be crucial to corporate reputation and public trust.”
However, members clashed over the ‘explainability’ of algorithms. “Algorithms can be made transparent, if you design them from the outset so that you can understand them,” argued Lord Clement-Jones. Cukier strongly disagreed. “There are different sorts of algorithms,” he said. “Explainability is not possible with modern forms of machine learning; deep learning.”
He admitted it was worrying that two knowledgeable commentators should have such opposing views on the question, a concern echoed by Lord Knight. “And we have very few parliamentarians who understand anything like as much as these two understand,” he warned.
Educating the public
With the discussion opened to the floor, audience questions revolved around the importance of education around social media and digital safety. “Do we need more to do more as leaders around education?” asked one delegate.
“Undoubtedly,” said Lord Knight. “10-11 million people in this country are digitally excluded; their data is being collected but they are disempowered about what’s being done with it. We have to educate our staff, the public, teachers and parents.”
Concluding the session, Lord Holmes asked panellists whether they intended to delete their Facebook accounts. While Groves explained that she has no account to delete, the consensus was “no”, matching the response from the audience, and indicating a sense of the ongoing appetite for social media – dangers and challenges notwithstanding.