Deep-tech startups have the potential to dramatically improve the society we live in today with the countless possibilities that breakthrough innovations within science and technology can bring. Many strive to solve global needs with their cutting-edge technologies – developing AI, robotics etc to tackle a range of vital and pressing issues from the climate change crisis, to curing currently fatal diseases and slashing mortality rates. 

So why is it important for these deep-tech companies to be ethical when creating technologies which will ultimately change and improve our world for the better? 

We live in an age of digital ambivalence – with Facebook overvaluing AI and devaluing ethics. And, indeed companies like Facebook and Google too, have been on the receiving end of much criticism about their ethical standards. So there is a great opportunity for startups to have at their heart an ethos centered around a heightened awareness of ethical and societal problems. Nobody can predict what the future holds and so it is essential to think about the long-term impact on society of the technology that is created in the present.

Right from the off, start your company as you mean to go on – ensuring your company grows ethically from the start. Understanding that ethics are not just to be taken into consideration at the end of the development is crucial; it needs to be thought of from the outset. And this is a change that needs to happen.

But deep-technology is developing at such a rapid speed that companies are in a heated race to release the next best thing. And it is this competitive desire that often leads to the disregard of the implications of their products or systems on society. 

To be more ethical, startups really need to go against the grain. While corporate giants are hoovering up prosperous startups for their own commercial power, Element AI is one startup achieving a higher ethical standard by paying universities for their innovations, yet allowing them to stay in their research roles. This ethically charged company is making it easier for consensus to be formed on social responsibility, by producing more freely available AI. 

Their ethical code is central to their values, as Katy Yam, Element AI’s Marketing Director, explains:

Our core values are to be a non-predatory player – to actually open everything up and give access to it all.

Having an ethical framework ensures creations of positive outcomes. It’s important that deep-tech companies take a fresh stance on social responsibility by ensuring they are aware of the consequences deep-tech brings to society. It is essential to have explicit ethical standards in order to remove, or at least reduce, the potential risk of unethical impacts. 

So how can we reduce unethical risks that may arise in deep-tech companies?

Trust and transparency are important factors, especially when the company’s aim is to use their platform to affect millions of people. Trust works together with ethics, and transparency inspires trust. In truth, trust is formed between consumers and employees alike – this provides purpose, and hence the power to transform. 

Salesforce Technology is a cloud-based software company that aids companies with business strategies. To achieve trust with their customers, the company discloses all outages and security issues in real time, and this transparency means that customers and investors are more comfortable in investing. The result of this is long-term future revenue growth. 

Companies also need to recognise that even design is critical to ethics. Design affects the audience’s trust, and it is the design strategy that controls our preferences, such as affecting which deep-tech we desire to use. Design is therefore an important ethical issue because it allocates the power between companies and consumers. 

Social harm can also arise through economic inequalities. When the company is society conscious, it creates an innate awareness of potential biases, and therefore it can be acted on and improved. To be ethically and socially conscious, you need to create an internal code of ethics. However, ethics are not always universal, but vary according to the culture and context situation. To ensure inclusivity, consider the public’s needs equally by having diversity within the members of the company, to ensure multiple points of view and that the difficult questions are being asked. 

Outlining the areas where ethical problems may arise helps you to clearly decipher where risk to social harm may arise, and so you can combat them before they occur. Build an ethical framework that reflects the company’s core values, and then use these to shape your company’s strategy and process. The reward of this will be long-term economic and societal results.