The ethics of Conversational AI

IBM's robot, Connie, is chatting to two women in a foyer.

writer icon Danny van de Wijngaard     IBM   |   Tech Ethics     🕐 30. Oct. 2018

This month, the Swedish company Artificial Solutions announced a big surge in capital investment.

The company received a $15.64 million investment, bringing the total investment to a respectable $34.38 million. Artificial Solutions is the company behind Teneo, a Natural Language Interactions platform for enterprises interested in conversational AI solutions.

What is Conversational Artificial Intelligence?
Conversational AI platforms could be considered as the natural successor of the first chatbots. These platforms provide natural language interaction. Users can converse freely, using speech, text, touch, and gestures. They demonstrate true advancement, combining a variety of emerging technologies from speech synthesis to natural language understanding. 

Conversational AI can think, interact, understand, learn, and perform human tasks. It is so sophisticated, that Juniper Research predicts that advanced chatbots may cut business expenses by as much as $8 billion in less than five years. 

How does it work?
Conversational AI offers assistance in a way that is similar to a human worker in a communicative role. They are the customer service provider, the IT support helpline, the sales advisor. Most platforms follow a cycle of analysing, reasoning, and reacting. This way they can react to serve the customer's needs, much in the same way that humans in a customer service role are trained. 

Smart Solutions
As computer parts become cheaper and smaller, the ability to add computing capabilities to almost anything is becoming a reality. Combined with a growing consumer appetite for speech-enabled natural language interfaces, AI solutions are no longer just science fiction.

A common application for conversational AI is making conventional applications or objects smart. Smart websites, for example, will transform the online user experience from a conventional one-way channel to an intelligent conversation.

Smart homes enrich the management of devices by letting users control them with everyday language and phrases. It is not hard to imagine these sorts of applications in other aspects of our lives, from our homes to our cars and even in doing our groceries. 

Helpful AI
At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, the film Zoe has its focus on advanced technologies as a potential solution to our global epidemic of loneliness. The film's director, Drake Doremus, makes the case that AI can provide some relief from social isolation in our not so distant future. 

There are other ways that conversational AI could benefit people. For example, it could help people with speech disorders by providing speech therapy. Battling social isolation and anxiety, or helping build vital skills, the possibilities are endless.

Controversial AI
A more controversial use of conversational AI comes in the form of digital employees. An artificial intelligence that thinks and interacts just like a human can, therefore, be used to perform human jobs. A suitable manifestation for this would be customer service and online or telephone support.

Conversational AI occupying jobs previously held by humans leads to a fair amount of debate. Some people are afraid that these forms of AI will cost society a lot of jobs

However, the opposite can also be true. Michael Xie, Founder, President and CTO at Fortinet argues that AI actually creates more jobs rather than eliminating them. In an article for Forbes, he argues -

"Automation and AI are not eliminating jobs, they are creating them — high-paying, high-level and secure ones at that — at an unprecedented rate. As the levels of data continue to grow, that will create even greater demand."

Ethical AI
There is a risk of overlooking the important ethical issues related to chatbots and AI. IBM Watson's CTO Rob High was featured by Forbes, promoting IBM's code of ethics, and the five key points of how to handle the ethical issues of artificial intelligence.

IBM published their code of ethics to the IBM blog. The code explains how it is important first to decide if the AI will fundamentally serve the needs of the customer or the needs of the business. It points out that an AI that is built to serve the customer can only be ethical if it meets the needs of the customer.

In contrast, AI built for business improvement has different requirements to serve the needs of the company.


The overarching principle is that transparency is the critical consideration. It must be clear to the user that they are talking to an artificial intelligence and not another human.

Another key ethical consideration is the privacy and ownership of information. Who owns the data shared with the AI? Personal information has to be processed and may even be stored. This information will also be held by the company that owns the AI. Transparency in what is done with the information is vital. This is usually achieved by requiring users to agree to terms of service first.

With conversational AI still in a stage of relative infancy, new ethical issues are likely to come up. Businesses should learn from these emerging cases.

Ultimately, all businesses and corporations should keep ethics at the centre of any progress they are making in tech. Particularly in the case of conversational AI, where human interaction with artificial intelligence is substantial.

We believe that information should be free and will therefore never put up a paywall.

If you like reading our reports about the Scandinavian business scene and would like to donate towards the upkeep of the site, we would be very grateful. Click here to donate.

Most Popular Articles of October

Most Popular Articles of this Year