The Power of Human-Rights Centred Ethics-By-Design

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Dr Agata Gurzawska | Cluster Lead - Ethics, Human Rights and New Technologies
Maj Reuss | Research Communications Officer

Date: 25 January 2024

The landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) is ever-changing. At the heart of this transformation is the need to incorporate ethics into the design process. Trilateral’s Ethics, Human Rights, and Emerging Tech cluster is dedicated to this principle. We specialise in designing technologies with a strong emphasis on inclusion, accessibility, equality, and sustainability.  This is made possible through our Ethics-By-Design approach. In this blog, we’ll delve into what this means and why it’s crucial for ethical tech and AI.

What is Ethics-By-Design?

Ethics-By-Design is a proactive and intentional approach. It places ethical considerations at the core of the development process. It does not treat ethics as an afterthought or a checkbox to be ticked off. Instead, this methodology integrates ethical principles from the project’s inception. It’s a commitment to prioritise human rights, fairness, accountability, and transparency throughout the entire lifecycle of tech and AI solutions.

According to the European Commission, there are six principles of Ethics-By-Design:

  • Respect for Human Agency:
    • Human beings possess the inherent right to make decisions and carry out actions that define their lives. Respect for this human agency depends on three crucial principles: autonomy, dignity, and freedom. It is vital to uphold these principles to safeguard fundamental human rights.
  • Privacy and Data Governance:
    • In the digital age, the right to privacy and data protection is more important than ever. People need to be assured that their personal information is handled with their safety and privacy in mind. A commitment to privacy and strong data governance protects these rights, fostering trust and accountability in the AI ecosystem.
  • Fairness:
    • An extremely important aspect of ethical AI is equality. This principle of fairness dictates that all individuals should have equal rights and opportunities, free from undeserved advantages or disadvantages. This principle ensures that AI systems contribute to an equitable society, promoting justice and inclusivity.
  • Individual, Social and Environmental Well-being:
    • AI systems should contribute to positive change, and create positive change for individual, social, and environmental well-being. This principle emphasises the importance of AI applications enhancing lives without causing harm, promoting the greater good for both individuals and the broader community.
  • Transparency:
    • Openness and clarity are pivotal in fostering trust between AI systems and their stakeholders. The purpose, inputs, operations and governance of AI programmes should be transparent and understandable. This transparency empowers individuals to comprehend and trust the technology they engage with, creating a more inclusive and informed AI landscape.
  • Accountability and Oversight:
    • Human understanding, supervision, and control are essential components of ethical AI. Individuals should be equipped to comprehend and oversee the design and operation of AI-based systems. Simultaneously, those involved in the development or operation of AI applications bear the responsibility for their functionality and the resulting consequences. This accountability ensures that AI operates within ethical bounds and aligns with societal values.

Ethical & Human Rights Impact Assessments

As AI continues to reshape our technological landscape, the collaboration of social science and humanities (SSH) researchers with technology developers becomes increasingly more important and crucial. SSH researchers play a pivotal role in allowing industry, public bodies and other sectors to adopt a ‘human-rights’ approach to AI, embedding human rights considerations throughout its lifecycle.

Trilateral employs a robust ethics-by-design and human rights-by-design approach, integrating Ethical Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) into our work. By embedding expertise from ethicists, lawyers, and social scientists into the research and innovation process, we foster  ethical, legal, and societal awareness. This collaborative process ensures accountability and aligns technology with the existing universal, binding and actionable framework provided by the international human rights system.

Tailoring our approach to clients’ needs and considering local, social, political, and environmental contexts, Trilateral strives to create technology that supports societal well-being. To do this, we foster meaningful and collaborative dialogues with different stakeholders, such as innovators, researchers, businesses, policymakers, civil society actors, ethicists and lawyers. We engage them from the very start of the project, helping them take ownership of and responsibility for decisions that have ethical, legal and societal implications, so they can respond proactively to these implications when developing new technologies.

Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIA) provide a practical framework for evaluating the effects of research and innovation processes on human rights. HRIA involve critically assessing the potential impact of AI technologies on various human rights, such as privacy, autonomy, and non-discrimination. This approach aims for the systematic and agile inclusion of human rights and ethical values throughout the entire technology design lifecycle, from ideation, requirements gathering, design, integration, demonstration, testing, all the way to market launch.

An example of this can be found in the EU funded OPTIMAI project. The project aims to advance Industry 4.0 through smart technologies and innovative manufacturing processes. With a focus on ethical, legal, and societal considerations, the project aims to create a new European industry ecosystem, focused on the development of new solutions to optimise production, reduce defects, and improve training in European industry.

Trilateral researchers provide practical solutions to operationalise and manage ethics and human rights, ensuring that future technologies are designed with a focus on social and environmental benefits. We go beyond theoretical principles, offering practical solutions for the agile inclusion of ethical considerations at every stage of technology design.

In the current AI landscape, an Ethics-By-Design is paramount. It stands as a beacon, guiding the responsible development and deployment of AI. This approach requires that we start a project with human rights and ethical considerations in mind. By doing so, we pave the way for a future where innovation and integrity coexist. The AI of the future must be more than effective, it must be ethical, respecting our core human rights.

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