The New CEO: Chief Ethics Officers in the Age of AI
By Caroline Santoro
In her opinion piece “Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical?,” Kara Swisher explores the idea that technology companies should create the role of Chief Ethics Officer to proactively address the rapidly growing ethical and social problems of technology. She argues that executives in the Silicon Valley are inundated with complex ethical issues, but they are not prepared to navigate them. Just in the last few weeks, she explains, companies like Tesla and WeWork must decide how to proceed after their billions-of-dollars investor, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, has been associated with the murder and dismembering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Beyond global scandals like these, the inherent ethical implications of big data and artificial intelligence affect technology companies every day.
Companies like 23andMe (at home DNA tests) and Salesforce (cloud computing) are considering hiring Chief Ethics Officers as point people for ethical and social concerns. Swisher takes the position that this isn’t really an effective solution, as one person shouldn’t be responsible for determining ethical behavior for an entire company and therefore is more of a risk than an asset.
While a single Ethics Officer may be an inadequate response to ethical challenges, Swisher may have dismissed the idea too quickly. The hallmark of an executive is management over a team, such as CFOs in finance or CMOs in marketing. Ethics officers shouldn’t be alone in their pursuit of ethical conduct for the company. Instead, companies should create an ethics board employing the same model as Institutional Review Boards, the bodies that oversee research at universities and companies. IRBs are comprised of people with diverse expertise and backgrounds, providing balance and comprehensive advocacy. On an ideal ethics board, members should include technical experts, ethicists, psychologists, and unaffiliated community members to address conflicts of interest and provide public opinion. Deliberating every issue carefully and proactively addressing potential problems could help Chief Executive Officers make more thoughtful and informed decisions. For example, could Facebook have anticipated the effects of selling its customers’ personal data? Could Uber have better managed the social impact of its service on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of taxi drivers around the world? Before legal and public relations teams come in to provide damage control, ethics boards would work to mitigate or prevent these issues and help the company hold itself to the highest ethical standard.
The World Economic Forum predicts that 65% of children entering school today will have a job that does not yet exist. Technology will eliminate some jobs and create others. As technology has a greater impact on people’s lives, companies must hire employees with a new set of skills — people trained to identify and resolve the ethical implications of technology, not just for their companies’ benefit, but for the benefit of humankind.
Swisher, K. (2018, October 21). Who Will Teach Silicon Valley To Be Ethical? Retrieved from
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