Project Management

The Intersection of AI and Ethics

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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by Wanda Curlee

Imagine this: You’re walking in San Francisco, California, USA, when you spot an out-of-control trolley car headed toward a group of five people working on the track. You yell for them to get out of the way, but they don’t hear or see you. You’re standing next to a switch, which would send the trolley on a different track. But there’s one worker on the alternate track who, like the five other workers, doesn’t hear you or see the trolley.

You have a choice: Do you flip the switch? Do you take one life over five?

There is no right or wrong answer. It’s an ethical dilemma.

As project managers, we routinely face dilemmas, although they’re not typically as dramatic as the trolley scenario.

In project management, our answers to ethical dilemmas are typically driven by our moral compass or the company’s statement of ethics. Does that mean we are correct? Correct by whose standards?

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) could bring new factors into our decision-making process. As project managers, we will use AI to make decisions or assist us with decision making. What the AI tool(s) decide to present can drive our decision making one way or another. What happens if AI presents us information that compromises the safety and efficacy of the projects? What happens if AI makes a decision that seems innocent but has dire consequences based on the logic tree—results that you, as the project manager, might not be visible to?

When revealing an ethical issue in a project management logic tree, it would seem that the decision making should be automatically deferred to the project manager. But whose ethics are used to decide when there is an ethical dilemma? What may seem a common decision to you is an ethical one to someone else.

AI is coming. It most likely will arrive in small bits, but eventually, it will be part of the project management landscape. So take steps to prepare now. Make sure you help with AI decision making when you can; participate in studies and surveys on AI and project management; study ethical dilemmas in project management and understand how the AI tool(s) are coded for ethics.

Be ready because project management is getting ready to change, not by leaps, but by speeding bullets in the near—and not so near—future.


Posted by Wanda Curlee on: November 19, 2018 02:58 PM | Permalink

Comments (49)

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When AI takes over the human race, ethics will need to be redefined, by them!

Hello Sante - Thanks for the comment. It will be an interesting dilemma. I hope that individuals smarter than me will make good decisions about AI.

Very interesting topic. Can you recommend any books or articles that outline other areas in project management that are anticipated to be impacted by AI?

Hello Jack - Thanks for your comment. I would recommend the articles and blogs written by Andy Jordan on AI. They are posted here in He has a very good understanding of how AI and project management are interrelated.

Wanda, interesting post. It will indeed be a complicated dilemma but it will vary from one industry to another. For example, in construction, the AI might not be as dominant as other industries for example.

Interesting topic on AI mainly from an ethical perspective.

Rami - Thank you for your comment. I agree that each industry will adopt and be affected by AI in different manners. However, I do believe we will have to make sure that ethics need to be implemented. Can you imagine if in the construction industry AI is coded to use the least efficient materials? Thanks

Rajesh - Thank you for your comment.

Of course Wanda, I certainly do agree with you.

Dr. Curlee, you made a good point in your response to Rami. AI is not only coded, it is given additional data for training. This is where ethics are especially important, since even the best coding can be undone if it is given skewed or misleading data. This can either be intentional or as simply a result of an organization trying to spend less on implementation.

Hello Glen - Thanks for your comment. I agree AI can be manipulated and can be intentional or unintentional. The intentional is somewhat concerning.

It's better to promote transparent and fair AI systems while an ethical framework will be necessary for the governance of AI.

Hello Damian - Thanks for the comment. That is certainly another viable way. The ethical framework would still need to be coded at some level and that would have to be reviewed closely. I do like your concept.

I was once working as analyst and developed complex mathematical simulation model to design emergency dispatch unit. It took me two month of intense work to build the model, gather data and verify that. When I got the results, I presented them to the senior customer team and them said in unison: yes, that’s what we thought.
What I want to say by this example is that I trust collective human experience to make the right decisions. I believe that we will evolve in our experience with AI to understand it better and get ready to make critical decisions along the way. We don’t know what to expect in future, so we must make ourselves grow and develop, not only to focus on the technological advancement. I’m still optimistic at this point.
Thanks for the very thought provoking article!

Hello Lenka - Thank you for the comment and life experience. It is very heartening to hear of real world experiences that are positive. I, too, have hopes, but I know there are those that want to corrupt technology.

Thanks for the article. We cannot think of AI as an independent entity. It is the result of the business and people that created the programs to run it. So ethics need to be built in. Also, the way that AI algorithms work is that they are trained by historical data from your company/ past projects. If you have a history of poor ethical behavior or poor ethics in decision making then the AI tools will think this is what you want.

There is a big mistake here about AI. AI will present alternative but the final decision is on human being hands. So, is not about AI. Is about human being.

Sergio - Thanks for your comment. I do agree in some industries that will happen but will have to disagree that there will always be a human override. There will be a time where self driving cars will not have a human override so it will be up to AI. I see this happening in many forms of transportation. I can see other industries also allowing AI to make everyday decisions as well.

Wanda - I agree but people need to be careful about the meaning of 'making decisions' The decisions made by AI are based on programmed algorithms. A self driving car stops at a stop sign because it is programmed to do so. It does not ignore the stop sign and head to Nebraska. The decisions are not independent of the programmed objectives. Yes many industries will allow AI tools to make decisions based on their programmed objectives.

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