AI poses ethical dilemmas in retail commerce

AI – Artificial Intelligence – poses “commercial and ethical questions” says the founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

That’s the view of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web who gave a keynote address at the World Retail Congress in Rome overnight.

Sir Tim told delegates that Artificial Intelligence will become a much more “dominant” force in future. Consumers and industry alike need to be wary of the issues that throws up.

“This is not something that we see a lot of at the moment. Yes, if you talk to your phone and ask it what the weather is, you are using lots of bits of Artificial Intelligence.

“If your company has masses of big data which it is using to look for patterns to try to understand the behaviour and guess the needs of customers in advance you may be using AI tools.

“In the future AI will become very much more dominant and retail will be dramatically affected and need to think carefully about how it is used.

“When I tell my phone I’m hungry and feel like eating Chinese it raises a really interesting question: Who is Siri working for? Is Siri working for me? Is it Siri’s job to find me the best Chinese meal or is Siri working for Apple and trying to get as much money as possible for Apple by auctioning the fact that they have a hungry consumer attached to it and desperate for food? The ethical debate is about who does AI work for.”

Sir Tim also encouraged companies to be more open with the data they hold on people to help consumers use it to improve their lives.

And he took a light swipe at Twitter saying that the next generation of social media sites should have new rules to eliminate some of today’s downsides.

“Every time you open a new social media site you can create completely new rules of the road and I think we’ll move beyond some of the things we have today.

“I think Twitter is in a way great in many ways but it has been demonstrated to be a horrible place for bullying.

“If we make a new Twitter, or something like Twitter, could it have a more sophisticated system so that really nasty people could be identified and side-lined.”

He said that the web still offered huge future potential – if we learn to use it positively – as half the world’s population is still not online.

“One of the things we need to do is get more people on board,” he told delegates in Rome.

“As we get more people on board it will be a more exciting place with a mix of cultures but one of the big challenges will be preserving those existing identities while creating a global culture.

“We need a global culture to be able to talk about refugees and finance and tackle issues like global warming and science, and cure cancer.

“For these huge challenges we need to use the web to work as a whole planet, like one team.

“But at the same time I think it’s really important that all of the dance, the music and the stories – the very spirit of different communities, big and small, are not lost.

“Those will be great challenges but also, we’re not doing a very good job of global governance.

“While the web has broken down the boundaries between different nations, so you can read a blog by anybody, anywhere in the world, on the other hand all our laws and governments and remain in those national boundaries.

“Outside of that we have very limited amount of effective governance, collaboration and co-operation and understanding.

“What will make a massive difference is if we manage to design democratic, and scientific and collaborative systems which allow us to function as a planet.”

The World Retail Congress was launched in 2007 to be a platform for senior retail executives to meet and discuss the most important topics affecting retailers across the world. It has been held in Barcelona (2007-9), Berlin (2010-11), London (2012) and Paris (2013-14) and is attended by up to 1000 industry leaders from more than 60 countries.


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