Corporate Responsibility in the Age of AI

Essay by Maria Eitel: “In the past year, a cacophony of conversations about artificial intelligence has erupted. Depending on whom you listen to, AI is either carrying us into a shiny new world of endless possibilities or propelling us toward a grim dystopia. Call them the Barbie and Oppenheimer scenarios – as attention-grabbing and different as the Hollywood blockbusters of the summer. But one conversation is getting far too little attention: the one about corporate responsibility.

I joined Nike as its first Vice President of Corporate Responsibility in 1998, landing right in the middle of the hyper-globalization era’s biggest corporate crisis: the iconic sports and fitness company had become the face of labor exploitation in developing countries. In dealing with that crisis and setting up corporate responsibility for Nike, we learned hard-earned lessons, which can now help guide our efforts to navigate the AI revolution.

There is a key difference today. Taking place in the late 1990s, the Nike drama played out relatively slowly. When it comes to AI, however, we don’t have the luxury of time. This time last year, most people had not heard about generative AI. The technology entered our collective awareness like a lightning strike in late 2022, and we have been trying to make sense of it ever since…

Our collective future now hinges on whether companies – in the privacy of their board rooms, executive meetings, and closed-door strategy sessions – decide to do what is right. Companies need a clear North Star to which they can always refer as they pursue innovation. Google had it right in its early days, when its corporate credo was, “Don’t Be Evil.” No corporation should knowingly harm people in the pursuit of profit.

It will not be enough for companies simply to say that they have hired former regulators and propose possible solutions. Companies must devise credible and effective AI action plans that answer five key questions:

  • What are the potential unanticipated consequences of AI?
  • How are you mitigating each identified risk?
  • What measures can regulators use to monitor companies’ efforts to mitigate potential dangers and hold them accountable?
  • What resources do regulators need to carry out this task?
  • How will we know that the guardrails are working?

The AI challenge needs to be treated like any other corporate sprint. Requiring companies to commit to an action plan in 90 days is reasonable and realistic. No excuses. Missed deadlines should result in painful fines. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect – and it will likely need to be adapted as we continue to learn – but committing to it is essential…(More)”.

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