1 Introduction

Out of concern for the unprecedented pace of AI development and the ensuing social and moral problems from 2016 onwards, a great many organizations have issued statements of commitment to principles for AI. Companies, civil society organizations, single-issue groups, professional societies, academic organizations, and governmental institutions from mainly the Western world and Asia started to formulate statements of principle.

Scepticism sets in soon enough. Would organizations involved in AI really be making steps towards implementing these lofty principles in practice? After all, in comparison with medicine, several obstacles immediately catch the eye: the young AI community lacks common values, professional norms of good practice, tools to translate principles into practices, and mechanisms of accountability (Mittelstadt, 2019). A stronger backlash against the continuing flow of declarations of good intent by for-profit companies in particular articulated even sterner doubts: they are just trying to embellish their corporate image with superficial promises, and effective implementation of the principles in practice is bound to remain toothless. They are just in the business of ‘ethics washing’, a neologism coined by analogy with ‘green washing’ to denote the ‘self-interested adoption of appearances of ethical behaviour’ by technology companies (Bietti, 2020). The language of ethics is being instrumentalized for self-serving corporate ends. They hope that as a result, regulation proper can be weakened or kept at bay; ethics is thereby transformed into a novel form of industrial self-regulation (Wagner, 2018).Footnote 1

So, we confront the following question: are the companies that have publicly committed themselves to AI principles actually trying to practice what they preach—albeit in the face of serious obstacles? Or are they effectively not trying, but just buying time from the ever-looming threat of increasing governmental regulation? Are they just engaging in a public relations offensive that signals their virtues while masking their lack of proper action? These questions of the number and value of actual efforts for implementing responsible AI and the intentions behind them are the main inspiration for this research.

The research zooms in on the firms’ attitudes to responsible AI from two angles. On the one hand, I ask myself whether the companies involved did try to implement AI principles in practice in their own companies and, if so, precisely how and to what extent. This includes efforts by these companies to act in concert with other companies and realize responsible AI amongst themselves (self-regulation). On the other hand, societal organizations of every kind—governmental ones included—are clamouring for more principled AI. Their declarations about responsible AI for the future vastly outnumber the declarations by the companies themselves about principled AI. To what extent are ‘committed’ companies willing to grant them a say in the AI issues involved? Phrased otherwise, what are their attitudes towards the issue of regulation proper? On the one hand, they may still—as is usually the case—consider regulation a catastrophic outcome to be avoided as supposedly stifling innovation and stress self-regulation as the preferred alternative. On the other hand, they may embrace regulation as a means to ward off social unrest about the new AI technologies unfolding. Which stance on AI regulation are they currently adopting?

At the outset, an important qualification has to be mentioned. Throughout, I have only selected principled companies that are substantially involved in AI practices: they have their own AI expertise, build their own algorithms and models, and as a rule have special departments or sections for AI/ML development. This enables them to advance the state of the art in AI/ML, to be innovators, not just followers. In particular, they have the capacity to pioneer fresh approaches to responsible AI. The outcomes of these AI efforts are used internally for their own products or processes, for selling AI (as software or cloud services) to clients, or for advising about AI—or, of course, for a combination of those activities. Such companies, to be referred to as ‘AI companies’, have exclusively been selected for further consideration since only those kinds of firms are able to change the character of AI and transform it into responsible AI in practice. Companies embracing AI principles that lack those AI capabilities can only be expected to promote the cause of responsible AI more modestly by focussing on such AI whenever they source AI solutions from elsewhere or by recommending responsible AI to their clients.

A caveat on method is also indicated here. In collecting these accounts of principles for and regulation of AI, I faced the problem that these often do not refer to AI in general but more narrowly to the particular AI that is embedded in a company’s business processes or product offerings. When Facebook talks about AI, it is from the perspective of the AI embedded in their platform services. When Philips or Health Catalyst talk about AI, they do so with their medical applications of AI in mind. When Google talks about AI, they have their much broader spectrum of AI applications in mind—from search engines, natural language understanding applications, self-driving cars, to drones. Vice versa, if we start from the angle of technology, views about, say, facial recognition technology are mainly expressed by companies that actually sell services of the kind (such as Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM). So, comments about AI principles or AI regulation are usually delivered from a specific ‘corner’ of AI, either narrow or broad, without being specified as such. It therefore remains imperative for readers—as well as this author—to always consider the corporate context and be on the alert for possible incompatibilities between accounts.

For a broad definition of the AI involved in these accounts, the reader may usefully be referred to a document from the ‘High-Level Expert Group on AI’ (AI HLEG) which describes the joint understanding of AI that the group uses in its work. This describes AI as a system composed of perception, reasoning/decision-making, and actuation; and as a discipline including machine learning, machine reasoning, and robotics.Footnote 2

2 AI Companies and AI Principles

This research began with a precise identification of the AI companies that have embraced principles for AI. Several projects across the globe compile inventories of organizations in general subscribing to AI guidelines/principles or issuing statements/studies about AI governance. The most important source was the article by Jobin et al. (2019) who performed a carefully tailored web search. Other important sources that I have consulted include the following (in alphabetical order of their URLs): the web log maintained by Alan Winfield,Footnote 3 a Harvard study from the Berkman Klein Center,Footnote 4 the Future of Life Institute,Footnote 5 the 2019 AI Index Report,Footnote 6 AlgorithmWatch,Footnote 7 the University of Oxford website maintained by Paula Boddington,Footnote 8 and the AI Governance Database maintained by NESTA.Footnote 9

However, these lists lump together all kinds of organizations that subscribe to principles for AI. So, as a first task, companies had to be disentangled from these lists. Subsequently, duplicates amongst them were removed and only proper ‘AI companies’ retained. This yielded 18 results. For the sake of completeness and in order to catch the most recent developments, I performed a supplementary web search for AI companies subscribing to AI principles (for details on search method, see Appendix). This only yielded one more result (Philips).

Further, the Partnership on AI has been taken into consideration. This early coalition (2016) of large AI companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft) focusses on the development of benchmarks and best practices for AI. At present, any organization is welcome in this multi-stakeholder organization, as long as they ‘submit an expression of interest, signed by its authorized representative declaring a commitment to: [e]ndeavor to uphold the Tenets of the Partnership and support the Partnership’s purposes’ and ‘[p]romote accountability with respect to implementation of the Tenets and of the best practices which the PAI community generates […]’.Footnote 10 Therefore, for the purposes of this investigation, companies that became partners of the PAI can also be considered to be committed to AI principles. In total, I counted 17 corporate PAI members that were proper AI companies; five were new names, so they were added to my list (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Health Catalyst, Affectiva).

Finally, the AI HLEG has been inspected. This temporary group was formed by the European Commission (mid-2018) to advise on the implementation of AI across Europe. It consists of 52 experts, who are mainly appointed in their personal capacity (17 so-called type A members) or as organization representatives (29 type C members). Several of those type C members come from firms: 12 in all.Footnote 11 Should their participation be considered a commitment to AI principles and their companies candidates for my list? I would argue that participation in the AI HLEG falls short of such a commitment. For one thing, the selection criteria do not require adherence to any kind of principles—it is just expertise that counts.Footnote 12 For another, as far as their final report is concerned, members only ‘support the overall framework for Trustworthy AI put forward in these Guidelines, although they do not necessarily agree with every single statement in the document’.Footnote 13 In view of both considerations, participation in the AI HLEG cannot be interpreted as fully binding any firm—or any other organization for that matter—to principles for AI. The Expert Group is a political arena for developing a common standard for AI principles, not a forum for commitment to it.

As a result of this exercise, I obtained 24 ‘committed’ AI companies in total; these are listed in Table 1. Note that the whole search procedure was conducted in English, leaving out any committed AI companies that exclusively (or predominantly) publish their company documents in another language. Moreover, Chinese companies such as Tencent and Baidu have been left out, since apart from the hurdle of language, the Chinese political system is hardly to be compared with that of the USA or Europe; comparing statements about the ethics and governance of AI would be a strenuous exercise. Further, many companies with clear commitment to AI principles have been left out where my second criterion was not met: they do not have substantial AI capabilities of their own (such as The New York Times, Zalando), have just started their AI efforts (Telia), or went commercial only recently (OpenAI).Footnote 14

Table 1 AI companies that committed to AI principles (ordered by revenue)1

After having identified these 24 ‘committed’ AI companies, I proceeded to delve deeper into their commitments. What exactly are the component parts of their declarations of principle? This exercise is not unimportant; after all, subsequently, I take these firms at their word and investigate whether they practice what they preach. I went back to the statements about AI principles for each of these companies (as well as the PAI) looking for the precise way in which the AI principles or guidelines were publicly formulated. The results are listed in Table 2.

Table 2 Exact phrasing of AI principles by the PAI and the 19 AI companies with explicit commitment to AI principles

In the first row, the tenets of the PAI are explicated. In the rows below, results are tabulated for the 19 companies with explicit declarations of AI principles (leaving out the five members-only of the PAI). Throughout, I classified the terms in use under six headings, ordered according to the empirical frequencies obtained.Footnote 15 Table 2 shows clearly that almost all firms emphasize four to five of the five main principles for AI: fairness/justice, transparency/explainability, security/safety, privacy, and responsibility/accountability. Only three firms (out of 19 in all) mention just three of them. So, a clear and homogeneous sense of purpose emerges as far as responsible AI is concerned: AI is to be fair and just, transparent and explainable, secure and safe, and privacy-proof, with responsibility and accountability taken care of; broader principles such as humans in control, benefitting society, respect for human rights, and not causing harm are stressed in various combinations. Note that this conception—not coincidentally of course—matches closely the term ‘trustworthy AI’ that has been coined in EU circles, the AI HLEG in particular. Five of their seven ‘key requirements’ for trustworthy AI (which is, in addition to being lawful, both ‘ethical’ and ‘robust’) match one to one with the above; their requirements of ‘human agency and oversight’ and ‘societal and environmental well-being’ correspond to my ‘broader principles’.Footnote 16

Below, I zoom in on these five ‘core’ principles, as representing the common denominator of the promise made by the 24 firms committed to AI. Notice that the first four of these principles imply requirements on the technical core of AI: the methods of ML have to change for them to be satisfied. Without this transformation, these principles cannot be satisfied—let alone any of the other more general principles associated with responsible AI (the ‘broader principles’ in Table 2).

A caveat is in order: the homogeneity may look impressive, but the terms employed leave ample room for interpretation. While, for example, security and robustness have acquired quite circumscribed meanings, transparency and explainability are more ambiguous. Do they refer to clarifying how predictions were produced? To the importance of features involved in a specific prediction? To counterfactual-like clarifications? So, all depends on how the committed companies are actually going about these challenges in practice.

3 Implementation of AI Principles Inside the Firm

Very little literature is available about corporate implementation of AI principles. While Darrell West is one the first authors to write about the issue,Footnote 17 Ronald Sandler and John Basl, in an Accenture report, paint the following broader picture based on several additional sources.Footnote 18 Upon acceptance of an AI code of ethics, an ethics advisory group (or council) is to be installed at the top of an organization in order to import outside viewpoints and expertise, and an ethical committee (or review board), led by a chief data/AI officer, is to be created which provides guidance on AI policy and evaluates AI projects in progress.Footnote 19 In both groups, ethicists, social scientists, and lawyers are to be represented. Further, auditing as well as risk and liability assessments have to become standard procedures for AI product lines and products. Keeping track of audit trails is to support the auditing. Finally, training programmes for ethical AI are to be implemented, and a means for remediation provided in case AI inflicts damage or causes harm to consumers. Note that West reported that in a US public survey, many of these ‘ethical safeguards’ obtained the support of 60–70% of the respondents.Footnote 20

A further source is a report produced by several governmental organizations from Singapore,Footnote 21 which presents a state-of-the-art manual for implementing responsible AI within the existing governance structures of organizations in general (p. 16). Particularly interesting for my purposes are their proposals (p. 21 ff.) for the introduction of adequate governance structures (such as an AI review board), clear roles and responsibilities concerning ethical AI (e.g., for risk management and risk control of the algorithmic production process), and staff training. Further, they propose ways to put ‘operations management’ (i.e., management of the processes of handling data and producing models from them by means of ML) on a more ethical trajectory (p. 35 ff.). They suggest an exhaustive series of requirements: accountability for data practices (including attention to possible bias) (p. 36 ff.), explainability, repeatability, robustness, traceability, reproducibility, and auditability (p. 43 ff.).

An aspect that is mostly glossed over in these sources is that requirements like the absence of bias, explainability, and robustness in particular cannot adequately be met by citing measures culled from management handbooks alone—especially as new techniques of ML will have to be invented and associated software tools be coded from scratch.

With this broad canvas in mind, to what extent did the 24 committed companies implement their AI principles in corporate practice? I performed a web search to discover associated mechanisms of implementation of AI principles (see Appendix for the method, searching with KS2). Which implementations did the committed companies report of their own accord? All results are rendered in succinct form in Table 3.

At the outset, it is to be reported that seven of my committed firms did not publish anything about these issues (or, for that matter, about their attitudes towards (self-)regulation of AI—on which I report later). So, there is simply no material to be inserted under the headings of Table 3—the entries for them have remained empty throughout my search efforts (with KS2, see Appendix). Inside some of these firms, I did trace discussions about AI being conducted, but clear results have not been published. This specifically concerns Apple, Samsung, Deutsche Telekom, Sony, Kakao, Unity Technologies, and Affectiva. Therefore, in the sequel, I no longer take them into consideration; specifically, their names do not appear in Table 3.

Table 3 Companies practicing and developing AI in order to apply/sell/advise about AI that explicitly have committed to principles or guidelines for AI and/or to the tenets for AI of the Partnership on AI—tabulated according to their internal governance for responsible AI; training and educational materials about responsible AI; new tools for fair/non-biased AI and explainable AI and secure/privacy-proof AI and accountability of AI; and their external collaboration and funding for research into responsible AI

3.1 Internal Governance for Responsible AI

As far as governance for responsible AI is concerned, implementations varied from substantial to marginal to none at all (for this section as a whole: cf. Table 3). More than half of the committed firms had not introduced any concrete steps towards responsible AI (14 out of 24 companies).Footnote 22 To be sure, they had discussions about it internally, yet nothing materialized that became public. Two others have at least taken steps to diversify the composition of their teams, as a contribution to the reduction of bias in AI (Sage, Element AI). The eight remaining companies did indeed introduce governance mechanisms at the top as suggested by West, Sandler and Basl, and the Singapore manual: an ethics advisory group (or council) for external input, and/or an ethical committee (or review board) that installs and oversees teams and/or working groups. However, the setup in full is only adopted by the smaller firms amongst them: SAP, Salesforce,Footnote 23 and DeepMind.Footnote 24 With the five remaining larger firms on my list (Google, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and Facebook), input from the outside world did not materialize: an ethics advisory group has simply not been installed—only an ethical committee or review board.Footnote 25 The firms in question will surely argue that they have ample contacts and consultations with ‘outsiders’. This is undoubtedly true, but the noncommittal nature of these interactions does not signal much of a willingness to grant influence to other societal actors.

Let me illustrate the workings of such internal governance with two examples. SAP’s ‘AI ethics steering committee’ is composed of senior leaders from across the organization. After having formulated SAP’s ‘guiding principles for AI’, it now ‘focuses on SAP’s internal processes and on the products that result from them, ensuring that the software is built in line with ethical principles’. At the same time, they installed an external ‘AI ethics advisory panel’, with ‘experts from academia, politics, and business whose specialisms are at the interface between ethics and technology—AI in particular’.Footnote 26 Their setup is transparent— the names of all the panel members are made public.Footnote 27

The ethical committee that Microsoft has installed is called AETHER (AI Ethics in Engineering and Research). Composed of ‘experts in key areas of responsible AI, engineering leadership, and representatives nominated by leaders from major divisions’,Footnote 28 it gives advice and develops recommendations about AI innovation across all Microsoft divisions. In particular, it has installed working groups that focus on subthemes like ‘AI Bias and Fairness’ and ‘AI Intelligibility and Explanation’. This AETHER Committee uses the services of the Office of Responsible AI that convenes teams to ensure that products align with AI principles. Moreover, the Office takes care of public policy formulation and the review of ‘sensitive use cases’ (such as facial recognition software) related to responsible AI.

3.2 The New Practice of Responsible AI: Training, Techniques, and Tools

Let us next turn to ‘operations management’ and the measures taken to transform it along the requirements of responsible AI. Companies committed to responsible AI have to ask new questions and develop new insights. The problem that they face is that most of the principles involved—fairness, explainability, security, and privacy—strike at the very heart of ML: the ways in which to perform ML have to be reflected upon. For these complex issues, proper research into the fundamentals of ML has to be performed. But research alone is not enough. ML and AI are eminently practical exercises, looking for the best algorithmic ways to produce models that can be used in practice. Therefore, at the end of the day, fresh research insights have to be translated into fresh software tools that update current practices. These tools allow taking ethical questions into account and may help in deciding about the most ethical course of action.

Against this background, I have been looking for new materials (blog posts, guidelines, manuals, checklists, techniques, tools, and the like) that have been developed by the 24 committed companies—with a particular focus on new software techniques and software tools. The results are reported in Table 3.

Half of all the 24 companies on my list, again, did not produce materials of any kind or set up courses for their employees. The principles for responsible AI are simply not (yet) addressed at the level of their workforce. The other half did address the espoused principles, to varying degrees. Four of them introduced (mostly informal) trajectories for training for responsible AI, accompanied by appropriate materials, either inside the firm (Telefónica, SAP, and Tieto) or geared towards external clients (McKinsey).Footnote 29 Another three were able to develop some software tools geared towards responsible AI and incorporate them into their existing products (Amazon, Facebook,Footnote 30 and Element AIFootnote 31). Consider Amazon, for example, one of the largest providers of software as a service. Their clients can build ML models with Amazon SageMaker; it now incorporates some (proprietary) explainability tools (delivering feature importance and SHAP values—more about these indicators below).

The remaining five firms have actively been developing both new materials to be used in training sessions (for their personnel and/or clients) and new software tools. The two smaller firms amongst them, Accenture and Salesforce, have developed some first steps. Let me delve deeper into the case of Salesforce, a company that sells CRM (customer relationship management) software. Their course is a module about bias in AI that they have put up on their online platform called Trailhead (freely accessible to everyone).Footnote 32 Apart from mentioning the virtues of diversity, respect for human rights and the GDPR, the ‘crash course’ focusses on bias and fairness in their various forms. This leads to ethical questions about AI which the various employee ranks have to ask themselves. Ultimately, AI may just amplify those biases—so how to remove them from one’s datasets? The module suggests conducting ‘pre-mortems’ addressing issues of bias, performing a thorough technical analysis of one’s datasets, and remaining critical of one’s model both while it is being deployed and afterwards.

In addition to this module, they developed a few software tools for responsible AI. Clients can bring their own datasets to the Salesforce platform and develop ML models from them (‘Einstein Discovery Services’). These services contain new tools that act as ‘ethical guardrails’.Footnote 33 Top predictive factors for a global model are produced upon request (→ explainability). Moreover, customers may define ‘protected fields’ (such as race, religion); that is, they are to receive equal treatment. The system then issues a warning whenever a proxy for them is detected in the dataset submitted for training (→ bias).

Training materials and software tools from Salesforce, though, are just tiny steps forward if we compare them with the offerings of the remaining three companies on my list: Google, Microsoft, and IBM. These easily outpace all the efforts mentioned so far in both quantity and quality. Their employee training has attained large proportions, and the materials for them stack up to an impressive list of notes, guides, manuals, and the like that probe deeply into the aspects of bias, fairness, explainability, security, privacy, and accountability.

Additionally, many of the new techniques involved have been encoded into programs in order to become effective. These are usually published on GitHub, as open source: other developers may download the source code and use or modify it. This move is not mere altruism, of course. The code involved may get better because of modifications contributed in return; the code may become a de facto standard; and it may help the company to attract clients to their commercial products. Notably, these new techniques and tools are largely the result of big research efforts by Google, Microsoft, and IBM into the features of bias, explainability, and security/privacy of ML. Since about 2016 onwards, their publication output in computer science journals, with a focus on these areas, has risen considerably.

Since the instruction materials from these three firms (perusable on their respective websites) are comparable to the Salesforce example above, below I focus on their software contributions. These are discussed in the order in which the features of responsible AI have become the subject of research: the issue of bias has been researched for a longer time, while the issues of explainability and security/privacy (insofar as arising from adversarial attacks) have come to the fore just recently.

3.2.1 Google, Microsoft, IBM: Fairness Tools

The fairness issue derives from the observation that bias against one group or another may easily creep into the ML process: bias in datasets (cf. Fig. 1) translates into ML producing a biased model as output. As a consequence, the generated predictions discriminate against specific groups. In order to address this fairness issue, Google, Microsoft, and IBM have developed several techniques and tools (cf. Table 3). Let me go into Google’s offerings first. Facets Overview enables visualizing datasets intended to be used (e.g., allowing to detect groups that are not well represented, potentially leading to biased results).Footnote 34 With the What-If tool, one may investigate the performance of learned models (classifiers, multi-class models, regression models) using appropriate test sets.Footnote 35 It may, in particular, address fairness concerns by analysing that performance across protected groups. With the push of a button, several definitions of fairness (‘fairness indicators’) can be implemented for any such group: the threshold levels are shifted accordingly (cf. Fig. 2).Footnote 36 Microsoft, on its part, offers similar analyses and tools bundled together in its Python package called FairLearn.Footnote 37 It also delves into fairness metrics for the various relevant groups and measures to mitigate corresponding fairness concerns in the ML process.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Source: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1810.01943.pdf

Localization of bias in datasets about creditworthiness (left) and police search rate (right) across privileged and unprivileged groups (IBM).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Source: https://research.google.com/bigpicture/attacking-discrimination-in-ml/

Various fairness measures and their thresholds: screenshot for equal opportunity (synthetic data from Google).

In comparison, though, both ‘fairness packages’ are less developed than the one from IBM.Footnote 38 Big Blue offers a larger menu of fairness measures which users may choose from (depending on the particular use case). For protected variables, metrics such as equal parity, demographic parity, and equal opportunity may be chosen. In order to mitigate biases, a range of techniques are presented—as invented by researchers from academia and industry, often working together. In general, training data may be processed before training starts (e.g., reweighing training data), the modelling itself can be adjusted (e.g., taking prejudices into account while processing the data), or biases in the algorithmic outcomes may be mitigated (e.g., by changing the model’s predictions in order to achieve more fairness). For most of the techniques involved (about 10 in all), IBM has developed software implementations.

3.2.2 Google, Microsoft, IBM: Explainability Tools

While ML took off in the 1990s with algorithms producing models that often could easily be explained (such as regression and single decision trees), soon enough the modelling became more complex (such as boosting and bagging, neural networks, deep learning); accordingly, interpreting models was no longer possible. How to interpret black boxes and the predictions they generate, both in general and for individual datapoints? Concerning this issue of explainability,Footnote 39 the three companies have put in great efforts as well (listed in Table 3). In their documentation materials, Google, Microsoft, and IBM all stress the point—accepted wisdom by now—that explanations must be tailored to the specific public involved: whether data scientists, business decision-makers, bank clients, judges, physicians, hospital patients, or regulators. Each of these groups has their own specific preferences for what an explanation should entail.Footnote 40 With this in mind, Google has further developed their What-If tool (already mentioned above).Footnote 41 It enables ML practitioners to focus on any particular datapoint and change some of its features manually in order to see how the outcome predicted by their specific model changes. In particular, one may find the most similar datapoint with a different prediction (‘nearest counterfactual’) (cf. Fig. 3). Moreover, one can explore how changes in a feature of a datapoint may affect the prediction of the model (partial dependence plots).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Source: https://pair-code.github.io/what-if-tool/demos/uci.html

Finding the nearest counterfactual with the What-If tool (Google) (UCI census income dataset).

In comparison, the options developed by Microsoft and IBM are more extended. Their packages each have their own flavour. Let me first discuss some IBM tools, bundled in their AI Explainability 360 Toolkit.Footnote 42 As directly interpretable models, they offer the BRCG (Boolean Rule Column Generation) which learns simple (or/and) classification rules, and the GLRM (Generalized Linear Rule Model), which learns weighted combinations of rules (optionally in combination with linear terms). A more experimental tool for obtaining an interpretable model is TED (‘teaching AI to explain its decisions’), which allows you to build explanations into the learning process from the start. Post-hoc interpretation tools are also made available. For one, several varieties of ‘contrastive explanations’: identification of feature values that minimally need to be present for a positive outcome, in combination with the relative importance of those features (‘pertinent negatives’). Similarly, their ‘Protodash’ method allows to put a specific datapoint under scrutiny and obtain a few other datapoints with similar profiles in the training set (prototypes), thus suggesting reasons for the prediction produced by the model. As can be seen, IBM offers tools that are similar to the What-If tool from Google, but they unfold a much broader spectrum of approaches.

Microsoft, finally, has also developed a variety of interpretability tools (under the label InterpretML), which, again, are based on advances in ML as recently published in computer science journals.Footnote 43 As an interpretable model, they propose the novel Explainable Boosting Machine (yielding both accuracy and intelligibility). For black box ML models, several explainer tools are provided. First and foremost, a family of tools is offered based on SHAP values—the method, pioneered by Lloyd Shapley, originates in game theory. The approach is model-specific, so for each type of ML model, a separate explainer has to be encoded. A SHAP-based explainer may then contribute to a global explanation by showing the top important features and dependence plots (the relative contribution of feature values to feature importance) (see Fig. 4). The explainer can also produce local explanations by calculating the importance of features to individual predictions (see Fig. 5) and by offering so-called what-if techniques that allow to see how various changes in a particular datapoint change the outcome.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Source: https://github.com/slundberg/shap

Feature values and their impact on model output (SHAP value); high feature values in red, low feature values in blue (global explanation).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Source: https://github.com/slundberg/shap

SHAP force plot, showing the contribution of features pushing model output higher (red) or lower (blue) than the base value (local explanation).

Secondly, besides SHAP explainers, a new interpretable model may be trained on the predictions of a black box model. Either train an interpretable model (say linear regression or a decision tree) on the output data of the black box model under scrutiny (global surrogate model; the method is called ‘mimic explainer’) or use the LIME (Local Interpretable Model-Agnostic Explanation) algorithm to train a local surrogate model that ‘explains’ an individual prediction.Footnote 44 Finally, for classification and regression models, the ‘permutation feature explainer’ is provided. This global explanation method revolves around the idea of randomly shuffling datapoint features over the entire dataset involved.

3.2.3 Google, Microsoft, IBM: Security and Privacy Tools

Before elaborating on the tools developed by Google, Microsoft, and IBM for enhancing security and privacy in AI, let me first briefly explain what these concepts imply for AI specifically. Whenever sensitive data are collected and processed by organizations, privacy is a vital issue of concern. The usual tools to handle such concerns are encryption, anonymization, and the like. Organizations have been confronted with this issue for quite some time now; the same goes for security. If sensitive data are involved in ML applications in particular, additional issues impacting on privacy and security come to the fore since adversaries may mount ‘adversarial attacks’ on the system. Such attacks aim to get hold of system elements (the underlying data, the algorithm, or the model) or to disrupt the functioning of the system as a whole. These issues are of more recent date, and efforts to deal with them are still in their infancy.

Several adversarial attacks may usefully be distinguished.Footnote 45 In the first category (targeting system elements), attackers may retrieve at least some additional feature values of personal records used for training (‘model inversion’). Similarly, outsiders may infer from a person’s record whether he/she was part of the training set (‘membership inference attack’). After a client has used data to train an algorithm, these may be recovered by a malicious provider of ML services if he/she has installed a backdoor in that algorithm (‘recovering training data’). Attackers may even emulate a trained model as a whole, by repeatedly querying the target (‘model stealing’).

The second category concerns the integrity of an AI system as a whole. Attackers may produce an ingenuous query and submit it to a model in deployment in order to disturb its classification performance (‘perturbation attack’, ‘evasion attack’). Specific data to be used for training may be compromised (or even datasets as a whole that are widely in use poisoned), affecting the trained model’s performance (‘data poisoning’). Finally, training may be outsourced to a provider that tampers with the training data and installs a backdoor in the produced model, resulting in degraded classification performance for specific triggers (‘backdoor ML’).

All this is very new terrain, with lots of active R&D, but as yet only a small repertoire of solutions and remedies. Most prominent is the approach of generating adversarial examples and retraining one’s algorithm to become immune to them (‘adversarial ML’). Another approach is ‘differential privacy’, which adds noise to ML: either locally to datasets so that individual datapoints can no longer be identified by users of the datasets or, in a more sophisticated vein, to the actual process of ML itself in order to render the final model privacy-proof—the algorithm becomes ‘differentially private’. The model no longer ‘leaks’ training data as belonging to specific individuals.

Finally, ‘federated learning’ is on the march.Footnote 46 Suppose an ML model is to be trained dynamically from local data on mobile phones. These are no longer uploaded to a central location but stay where they are. After receiving the current model, each phone locally performs an update which is uploaded and used for ‘transfer learning’. Apart from enhancing security, this obviously reduces the risk of violation of privacy.

Which tools of the kind are offered by Google, Microsoft, and IBM (see Table 3)? IBM appears to be the minor player here. It only offers the Adversarial Robustness 360 Toolbox, an open sourced toolbox with tools to defend deep neural networks against adversarial attacks.Footnote 47 Microsoft, on their part, have open sourced the WhiteNoise toolkit for implementing differential privacy schemes, focussing on datasets.Footnote 48

Google, finally, seems to have the edge at the moment. To begin with, they offer a library of adversarial attacks (CleverHans).Footnote 49 Furthermore, they have developed two differential privacy schemes focussing on the very process of ML. The first scheme, TensorFlowPrivacy, provides a method that introduces noise into the gradient descent method used in neural networking.Footnote 50 Private Aggregation of Teacher Ensembles (PATE), the second scheme, proposes ML in two steps.Footnote 51 Teach an ensemble of models first, add noise to their collective ‘voting’, and learn a student model from fresh data (which have obtained their label from the ensemble voting). Only the latter student model is to become public, all others are discarded (see Fig. 6). Their Cobalt pipeline, finally, combines various security measures: federated learning, local differential privacy, and anonymization and shuffling of data.Footnote 52

Fig. 6
figure 6

Source: http://www.cleverhans.io/privacy/2018/04/29/privacy-and-machine-learning.html

Teacher-Student Adversarial Training (Google).

3.2.4 Accountability Tools

The final aspect that has frequently been stressed as an element of responsible AI is accountability (cf. Table 2): providers of AI have to be able to produce a proper account of all the steps in the process of production of their solutions. While most companies on my list of 24 just pay lip service to this requirement, only three firms have actually developed accountability tools tailored to AI. In a kind of silent competition, Google, Microsoft, and IBM have each submitted proposals of the kind (Table 3). As we will see, these complement each other. Let me first discuss the proposal from (mainly) Microsoft employees about datasets to be used for training (Gebru et al. 2018–2020). The authors emphasize that quality of datasets is paramount for ML. Datasets may contain unwanted biases, and the deployment context may deviate substantially from the training context. As a consequence, the trained model performs badly. In order for dataset consumers to be prepared, they suggest that dataset creators draft ‘datasheets for datasets’. These are to give full details about how the dataset has been ‘produced’: its creation (e.g., by whom), composition (e.g., labels, missing data, sensitive data, data splits), collection (e.g., sampling procedure, consent), pre-processing (e.g., cleaning, labelling), uses (e.g., in other instances), distribution (e.g., to whom, licensing conditions), and maintenance (e.g., support, updates).

Further, ‘model cards’ are proposed by Google employees (Mitchell et al. 2018–2019). These cards provide details about the performance of a specific trained model. Subsections are to specify details of the model; intended uses; factors to be considered for model performance; appropriate metrics for the actual performance of the model; specifics about test data and training data; and ethical considerations to be taken into account. As the authors note, such cards are especially important whenever models are developed, say by Google, and offered in the cloud (‘Google Cloud’) and subsequently deployed in contexts such as healthcare, employment, education, and law enforcement (Mitchell et al. 2018–2019: 220). From the point of view of responsible AI, this accounting procedure is interesting, since any of its aspects can be incorporated in a model card as an issue to be reported on. Take fairness (Mitchell et al. 2018–2019: 224): whenever different groups (say age, gender, or race) are involved, the actual performance of the model across them can be specified (say by means of a confusion matrix). This allows to inspect whether equal opportunity has been satisfied.

Finally, ‘Factsheets for AI-services’ are proposed—by IBM employees this time (Arnold et al. 2018–2019). As a rule, AI services do not rely on single datasets or single pretrained models alone but on an amalgam of many models trained on many datasets. Typically, consumers send in their data and just receive answers in black box fashion. In order to inspire confidence in such services, the proposed factsheets can first of all enumerate details of the outputs, training data and test data involved, training models employed, and test procedures adhered to. Furthermore, several issues related to responsible AI may be accounted for: fairness, explainability, and security/safety (such as protection against adversarial attacks and concept drift).

3.3 External Collaboration and Funding concerning Responsible AI Research

Many companies on my list of 24 perform some degree of R&D internally. Moreover, some of them nurture close ties with outside non-profits or universities concerning research areas they deem important. Regular publications in computer journals are common. Take DeepMind. Acquired by Google in 2014, it is now Google’s research department in the UK that cooperates with many outside organizations and has maintained a consistent research output over the years. Or take IBM. Big Blue has always had a strong research department, outside collaborations, and a high research output as a result. At the moment, it does joint R&D with dozens of academic institutions. One recent example, initiated in 2019 (see Table 3), is their joint research with the Institute for Human-Centred AI at Stanford, focussing on responsible AI—as well as natural language processing and neuro-symbolic computation.Footnote 53

As far as responsible AI is concerned, a new pattern has emerged on top of these regular R&D efforts: erecting completely new institutes (or programmes) with an exclusive focus on responsible AI and furnishing the money for them. Three such initiatives are current (Table 3). Facebook has created the Institute of Ethics in AI, located at the TU Munich (2019). With a budget of 7.5 million dollars over five years, it will perform research about several aspects of responsible AI.Footnote 54 Amazon co-finances an NSF project called ‘Fairness in AI’ with 10 million dollars over the next three years (2019). The project distributes grants to promising scholars located at universities all over the USA. Its title is slightly misleading, though, since they actually intend to cover many aspects of responsible AI, not just fairness.Footnote 55 IBM tops them all by funding a separate Tech Ethics Lab at the University of Notre Dame (2020). With 20 million dollars at their disposal for the next 10 years, the lab will study ethical concerns raised by advanced technologies, including AI, ML, and quantum computing.Footnote 56

For a proper perspective, these initiatives should be placed in context. For IBM, it clearly represents an extension of already considerable research into ethical aspects of AI/ML. For Facebook and Amazon, the context differs: their programmes mark an effort to catch up. Their spending on research into aspects of responsible AI (and corresponding publication output) has been negligible until recently—especially in comparison with the main companies pushing for responsible AI: Google, Microsoft, and IBM.Footnote 57

4 Implementation of AI-principles: Overview and Discussion

Let me at this point summarize the steps which the 24 companies that committed to principles for responsible AI have actually taken to move from those principles to their implementation in practice. The summary will be used for an attempt at answering the question whether we can accuse the companies involved of mere ‘ethics washing’ or not.

4.1 Overview

As appropriate governance structure for responsible AI, it is usually suggested to introduce a two-fold setup at the top of an organization: an ethics advisory group (or council) for input from society and an ethical committee (or review board) for guiding and steering internally towards responsible AI. It turns out that a large majority on my list of 24 did not care about such new governance: only eight companies did introduce such measures. Five firms installed an ethical committee alone, while three firms installed the full governance setup of ethical committee and advisory group. Remarkably, none of the largest companies usually very vocal about their mission to realize responsible AI (Google, Microsoft, and IBM) cared to install such an advisory council on top of their ethical committee.

The statistics are slightly better as far as developing new educational materials for training purposes (blog entries, guidelines, checklists, courses, and the like), or coding new software tools is concerned. While half of all 24 committed firms did not contribute anything of the kind, four companies introduced relevant training options, and three companies incorporated some smaller tools (for fairness or explainability) into their current software offerings. Only five companies realized that fully responsible AI can only come to fruition if documentation and software tools about all aspects of responsible AI are created and made available to employees/clients.

Amongst these, Google, Microsoft, and IBM stand out. Their educational materials and software tools are in a class of their own that no other large company—such as Amazon or Facebook—has been able to match. Based on thorough research, usually performed together with other researchers at universities and non-profits, the whole package represents the forefront of current ideas about responsible implementation of AI. Let me just recapitulate some highlights.

Concerning fairness, a whole menu of metrics has been developed. Building on this, several techniques for mitigating bias have been developed, each implemented in relevant source code. As far as explainability is concerned, post-hoc interpretable models can be learned on the predictions from a black box model. Methods have been developed to find the most similar datapoints with the same prediction or the nearest datapoints with the opposite prediction. Approaches based on SHAP values report the most important features for either a model as a whole or a particular prediction. For countering adversarial attacks, prominent tools are libraries of adversarial attacks and the addition of noise to datasets or to the neural networking itself. Finally, serious steps towards realizing accountability are schemes that enable to account for datasets, models, or AI-as-a-service.

4.2 Discussion

So, first steps towards responsible AI have been taken, in particular, by the largest tech companies involved. How are we to evaluate these steps? Do they amount to mere ‘ethics washing’? The charge of mere ethics washing is to mean that all the developments reported above are just ‘ethical theatre’ (yielding nothing of value) intended to keep regulation at bay (a goal that may or may not be reached).Footnote 58 Such activities may substitute for stricter regulation. In order to inspect this charge, I propose a nuanced approach which breaks it down into its component parts and discusses them in an analytic fashion. Building upon arguments developed by Elettra Bietti, Brent Mittelstadt, Julia Powles, and others, three perspectives are explored, focussing, respectively, on (a) the impact on regulatory alternatives, (b) the constraints on governance initiatives within a firm, and (c) charges of a narrow focus on ‘technological fixes’.

4.2.1 Impact on Regulation

Concerning regulation, the actual impact of new governance structures and new educational materials and software tools (combined with massive funds for collaboration between industry and academia) (Table 3) on regulatory alternatives is to be explored, as well as the companies’ intentions behind these actions. First, did these initiatives for responsible AI effectively freeze regulatory alternatives? Has valuable time been won by the companies involved and regulatory pressures staved off (cf. Bietti, 2020: 217)? I would argue that this potential effect has not materialized. In retrospect, after some early sporadic calls for responsible AI (from 2016 onwards), the flood of declarations of AI principles issued by companies began in earnest at the beginning of 2018. This soon enough led a dozen of them to initiate experiments with new governance structures and/or creating manuals and software tools for responsible AI (as presented in Table 3). In addition, important industry-academia collaborations were staged (Table 3). Concurrently though—with small beginnings even before 2018—governmental and civil society actors, the professions, and academia alike started to press home their views on responsible AI. In this cacophony of voicesm important corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, and Google (in that order) began to realize that governmental regulation of AI was unavoidable. From mid-2018 onwards, they publicly uttered their willingness to cooperate with efforts towards regulation of the kind (to be discussed more fully below, Sect. 5.3.2). So, any softening or delaying of AI regulation does not seem to have occurred.

As to their intentions, second, some companies committed to AI principles (from Table 3) initially may well have harboured hopes for state regulation to be delayed or weakened as a result of their AI initiatives. After all, such hopes are usually supposed to be the intention behind pleas for self-regulation by firms (cf. also Sect. 5.1 below)—and the campaign for responsible AI as just described is just another form of self-regulation, this time within the individual firm.Footnote 59 Anyway, whatever hopes may have been entertained by any firm; these were effectively squashed by the incessant pressures from society for an AI responsive to its needs.

4.2.2 Corporate Constraints

Next, one has to consider the corporate context within which these initiatives for responsible AI unfold, potentially reducing the scope of possible reform (cf. Bietti, 2020: 216–217). Several questions impose themselves. What discussions are considered legitimate? What is considered out of bounds? How do decision powers influence outcomes? How does the new governance for responsible AI influence actual project decisions? Were the AI products developed demonstrably more ‘responsible’? Were any projects deflected in their course? Were any projects (say about autonomous AI) halted out of ethical considerations? Are AI governance practices made transparent? May outside experts speak freely about their experiences or not?

Answering these questions about the gains of corporate new governance of AI as tabulated in Table 3 is a thorny issue. Concerning ethics councils, review boards, and team diversity, I have only assembled materials as published by the firms themselves. This produces an overview of rules and procedures that have been introduced—not of the results obtained (if any). Companies do not report detailed evaluations of the various procedures involved. So, I simply cannot answer the above questions.

Occasionally, incidents leak out that remind us that company preferences and constraints are in force. In spite of their lofty AI principles, Google had initiated cooperation with the Pentagon for the Maven project; their task was to improve the analysis of footage of surveillance drones by means of ML. When details of this contract came into the open, massive employee protest erupted. As a result, the company decided to cancel its cooperation (mid-2018).Footnote 60 More recently (December 2020), AI researcher Timnit Gebru was fired by Google.Footnote 61 The direct cause was an argument about the future publication of a research paper she had co-authored. It alerted to the dangers of large natural language modelling (like BERT and GPT-3), especially the large environmental footprint it requires.Footnote 62 In the background, though, there was also resentment on the part of Google management about her fight for inclusiveness inside the company. With this alarming incident also, several thousands of people (including many Googlers) immediately protested. Doubts about Google’s stance towards inclusivity and principled AI were expressed openly. Another prominent member of the AI ethics group, Margaret Mitchell, who openly supported Gebru, was fired two months later (February 2021).Footnote 63 Steps the company might take in response to the protests and actual repercussions for the company’s efforts towards responsible AI as a whole are yet to be determined. Have responsible AI and Google’s corporate environment become incompatible after all?

Obtaining more thorough insights about the achievements of said new governance would require in-depth scholarship that obtains independent access to the firms, their employees, and their committee members. So, the only conclusion that can be drawn for the moment is that, indeed, corporate energies have been channelled into bending AI practices towards more ‘responsibility’—with research participants apparently trying to achieve tangible outcomes. Whether this is actually the case remains to be determined.

4.2.3 A Narrow Focus on ‘Technological Fixes’?

The final fruits of responsible AI efforts are the courses, materials, guidelines, instructions, and software packages as tabulated in Table 3. Several authors have been dismissive of these steps on the road to responsible AI practices, the new software tools in particular. These are variously debunked as ‘technological solutionism’, as based on the mistaken conception of ethical challenges as ‘design flaws’ (Mittelstadt, 2019: 10); as ‘mathematization of ethics’ (Benthall, 2018) which only serves to provide ‘a false sense of assurance’ (Whittaker et al. 2018: ch. 2, p. 27); or, as Julia Powles puts it, talking about the efforts to overcome bias in AI systems: ‘the preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles distracts us from the far more important issue of the colossal asymmetry between societal cost and private gain in the rollout of automated systems; (…) the endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all’ (Powles & Nissenbaum 2018).Footnote 64

The charge is that the AI community of experts is tempted to reduce the ethical challenges involved to a technocratic task: the appropriate conceptions are to be made computable and implementable, and all AI will be beneficial. As a result, the inherent tensions behind these ‘essentially contested concepts’, emanating from the clash between the interests of the various stakeholders involved, are ignored and remain unaddressed.

Note the parallel: while the earlier critique of new instruments in general for responsible AI argued that these may obscure regulatory initiatives and thereby soften or keep them at bay, this additional critique of technical solutions in particular argues that these tend to obscure the more fundamental problems underlying application of AI and therefore keep consideration of them at bay. Both may be considered to be forms of the ‘ethics washing’ argument—but they point to different phenomena being obscured, both deemed a nuisance by companies.

How serious is this technocratic critique to be taken? It is no coincidence, of course, that in their declarations, the 24 committed companies have precisely zoomed in on those principles that require new technical methods (for fairness, explainability, security and privacy). To them, as computer scientists, it is appealing to solve the puzzles involved. However, the charge appears to suggest that, therefore, close to nothing has been gained. I dare to challenge this assessment.

Take explainability: of course, only a broad societal debate can determine what a proper explanation is to mean, for each relevant public and for each relevant context. But let us not overlook the fact that that debate is already underway. Academia and industry have been discussing the need to distinguish between different publics that require explanations, and the sort of explanations they require. Thereupon, much energy has been put into translating these requirements into concrete software tools (most of which have been open sourced). As a result, the ethical discussion has not necessarily been foreclosed, but has acquired the tools needed for the debate to continue and possibly reach some kind of consensus. Instead of decrying the ‘mathematization of ethics’, one could try to see it in reverse: the mathematical tools created may readily invigorate the ethical debate.

The same argument can be made for fair AI. The concept of fairness is essentially contested, indeed. But for now, a debate spanning academia and industry circles (and beyond) has made clear that a multitude of fairness conceptions are to be distinguished. As the next step, this has been translated into more precise fairness metrics, which subsequently have been implemented in software tools (open sourced again) that allow updating learned models to conform to one’s fairness metric of preference. Again, I interpret this development as a welcome tool for a fruitful ethical discussion, not as a technocratic solution that necessarily diverts attention away from the underlying societal tensions and stakeholders involved.

Rounding off the whole discussion about ‘ethics washing’ in this Sect. (4.2), I conclude that overall, some progress towards responsible AI has been made. Although an assessment of the new governance for responsible AI remains elusive, some positive first steps have been taken, especially by the companies on my list that have produced guidelines, brochures, checklists, and, last but not least, concrete software implementations for the newly invented techniques (Table 3).Footnote 65 For those companies at least, the accusation of being involved in mere ‘ethics washing’ seems to be misplaced. As for the committed companies on my list that apparently—at least publicly—have not set any first steps on that road, the jury is still out; though belatedly, they still might catch up.

4.3 A Future with Responsible AI?

So, may we conclude that a future with responsible AI is near and all the promises will turn into reality? That is, presumably the following scenario unfolds. The responsible AI tools from Google, Microsoft, and IBM will (continue to) trickle down and increasingly be used by other producers and consumers of AI solutions. As a result, biases will be reduced to a minimum, and recipients at the end of the AI chain (such as physicians, patients, or bank clients) and overseers (such as regulators) will receive the explanations they desire—all of this (almost) completely shielded from the fall-out of adversarial attacks. I am afraid, however, that it is too soon for jubilation; many obstacles remain to be overcome.

Let us consider, by way of example, the companies in my research that did introduce training materials and/or software tools connected to explainability. For one thing, it is difficult to ascertain whether their training sessions for ML practitioners to develop the correct ‘mindset’ for handling the issue of explainable AI are actually effective. Moreover, whenever companies do use the software tools involved, overwhelmingly they appear to be used by ML practitioners only for the purpose of sanity checks on the models they produced (Bhatt et al. 2019–2020).Footnote 66 The relevant end users simply do not (yet) receive explanations from them.

Studies suggest that many hurdles have to be overcome before ML practitioners feel confident to do so (Bhatt et al., 2020). There are some technical issues (such as how to find counterfactuals and construct measures of confidence). More importantly, though, explanations have to be put into the particular context, stakeholders’ needs have to be considered, and the process of explanation should preferably allow interacting with the model. Finally, most difficult of all, interpreting important factors of an explanation as causal remains a fragile undertaking. The article by Bhatt and others (2020) provides a fascinating array of situations in which unanswered urgent questions emerge—bringing home the point that technical prowess concerning ML is one thing but putting those instruments to work in actual practice in responsible fashion is quite another. That implementation phase is a formidable hurdle that is underexplored at present.

Currently, only a fraction of companies (let alone organizations in general) are recognizing the risks associated with the explainability of AI and taking steps to mitigate them. A McKinsey study from 2019 amongst firms using AI found that the percentage was 19% (amongst ‘AI high performers’ it rose to 42%).Footnote 67 If a much wider audience of companies (and other organizations) becomes convinced that the call for explainable AI must be answered, they will have to adopt the relevant training materials and software tools. That spread, though, is likely to face additional obstacles. Kaur et al. (2020) did research about the potential use of the interpretable GAM (General Additive Model) and SHAP explainers by data scientists. After having been introduced to the new tools, the majority of their respondents did not appear to properly understand the tools and their visualizations. As a result, instead of (correctly) using them for critical assessment of their models, these practitioners either uncritically accepted the tools (‘overuse’), blinded by their public availability and apparent transparency, or they came to distrust those tools and showed reluctance to use them at all (‘underuse’). If these obstacles are not cleared, expectations about proper explanations being provided to end-users are even more utopian.

So, the road to AI with stakeholders being satisfied in their demand for explanations seems to be full of obstacles. The same goes, I presume, for the road to fully de-biased, fair, and secure AI—each with obstacles of their own. And as concerns the accountability tools mentioned, these may evolve into standards, but as long as they remain voluntary, their wide and—especially—faithful and complete adoption is far from guaranteed.

After these sobering conclusions about the future of (responsible) AI, it is time to move on to the issue of AI regulation.

5 Regulation of AI

Until now, I have been focussing on the 24 committed companies individually and their efforts to implement responsible AI. However, the issue of such AI is also hotly debated in society at large, as the numerous declarations about AI by a range of societal organizations attest to. Are the committed firms willing to grant society and its constituents a say over affairs of (responsible) AI? Phrased otherwise, what are their attitudes to regulation of AI by societal actors at large?

Some explanation about the term regulation is in order at this point. Steurer (2013) constructed a synoptic view of the various possible forms of governance of business by state and non-state actors. He focusses on the various ‘actor constellations’ involving government, business, and/or civil society that constitute a variety of modes of regulation.Footnote 68 While confining myself to those parts of his analysis that are useful for my purposes, let me first introduce the three basic types of regulation (see Fig. 7). The first is self-regulation by businesses (Steurer, 2013: 394–396). This can take place at the level of the individual firm—which has been discussed extensively above. It can also take shape at the industry level, in sectors which are relevant. Firms (or their trade associations) cooperate in the pursuit of developing best practices, codes of conduct, standards, or audit schemes, which companies subsequently may adhere to on a voluntary basis. A large pool of standardization bodies across the globe offers their services for the purpose. Noticeably, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’—that is, governmental intervention—is usually not far away when such ‘voluntary’ initiatives are unfolding (cf. Steurer, 2013: 399–400).Footnote 69

Fig. 7
figure 7

Source: Steurer (2013): 398

Domain-specific types of regulation, as well as domain-spanning types of co-regulation.

The second basic type presented by Steurer is regulation by government—usually referred to as regulation tout court (Steurer, 2013: 393–394). Although governments usually issue laws, decrees, or directives that steer the issues at hand (‘hard regulation’), they may also use economic instruments (such as taxes or fees), or publish guidelines, brochures, or reports that suggest the correct course of action (‘soft regulation’). The third and last basic type is regulation by civil society and its organizations (Steurer, 2013: 396–397). These include organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace; in a wider sense, they are often joined by critical investors, critical employees, and critical consumers. These may develop pressure upon companies or confront them in direct ways (blockades, boycotts) in order to have them accept specific standards (e.g., concerning child labour) or adopt a specific course of action (such as abandoning the production of genetically modified food).

Besides these ‘one-sided’ forms of regulation, in which the sphere of business is steered by a power sphere outside it, Steurer distinguishes modes in which spheres are jointly establishing a regulatory regime. This can be realized in two distinct ways. On the one hand, actors may join forces and resources in non-confrontational ways (co-regulation): government and business, or civil society and business cooperate as ‘partners’—to be referred to as public or private co-regulation respectively (Steurer, 2013: 396–397; cf. Fig. 7). Examples include jointly developing new standards (e.g., for sustainable coffee) or certification schemes (e.g., for sustainable forest management).

On the other hand, societal domains—government and business in particular—can end up working together on regulation in confrontational ways. According to Steurer (2013: 401), this yields a novel form of regulation imbued with an air of antagonism that fuses governmental regulation and self-regulation into a new hybrid. Such a hybrid regulatory regime is very common in Europe, and a variety of forms can be found in practice. These may usefully be classified along two variables: whether they are explicitly mandated by the state or implicitly suggested, and the policy stage in which public involvement takes place: the early stage of rule-making, or the later stages of implementation, monitoring, and enforcement (combined) (cf. Senden et al., 2015; in particular, graph 2, p. 36). A prominent example is ‘enforced self-regulation’: the state commands firms to develop a self-regulatory regime while retaining the right to monitor and sanction the results. Such subcontracting clearly exhibits the characteristics of both state regulation and self-regulation.Footnote 70 Another well-known hybrid example is ‘responsive regulation’, a term coined by Ian Ayres and John Braithwaite two decades ago (Steurer, 2013: 401): laws are combined with a repertoire of tools for the regulator, ranging from persuasion up to sanctions, in order to elicit compliance from and stimulate self-regulatory activities of firms under regulatory scrutiny.

With this conceptual framework at hand, I performed a web search in order to find out what the 24 committed companies have published on this topic of regulation of AI. What are their thoughts and actions about self-regulation (at the industry level), civil regulation, and state regulation of AI (cf. Appendix on search method, searching with KS3)?Footnote 71 Notice that for the committed companies in this research AI has effectively morphed into ‘responsible AI’ — to them, there is no AI if not responsible. As a result, their proposals for proper regulation of AI refer to AI that is ‘responsible’ by default. The heated discussions about facial recognition software, for example (cf. Sections 5.2, 5.3.2, and 6 below), exemplify that at present, regulatory proposals for AI are invariably imbued with principles for responsible AI.

5.1 Self-Regulation of AI at the Industry Level

Let me first remark that AI companies participating in the Partnership on AI (17 in all) may be considered to subscribe to the development of appropriate best practices for AI. After all, developing such benchmarks for AI is the raison d’être of the PAI. On their website, an impressive list of reports and research papers of the kind may be consulted.Footnote 72 Remarkably, the Partnership started off as a self-regulatory exercise at the industry level, but soon enough other stakeholders were invited and joined as partners. As a result, the initiative turned into a ‘private co-regulation’ arrangement (cf. Section 5 above), a cooperation between industrial and civil society members as equal partners in search of best practices.Footnote 73

From my search of documents and statements produced by all 24 committed AI companies, several other more pronounced self-regulatory instruments for responsible AI came to the surface (Table 4). Most often (by 12 of them), the development of adequate standards for AI was recommended. When they appear in their final form, companies may, on a voluntary basis, request to be certified for their adoption. These standards are sometimes specified as global standards (by Accenture, Element AI, Facebook, Google, and Intel), sometimes as domestic standards (Canadian, by Element AI; European, by Tieto). Moreover, the organizational setting that is to develop the standards may specifically be mentioned: NIST (by Amazon), IEEE (by Accenture), or an industry-driven standard-setting organization (by McKinsey, Telefónica). Firms in the medical sector (Health Catalyst, Philips) obviously stress the need for medical standards—without them, no AI product can be launched in that sector at all.

Table 4 Companies practicing and developing AI in order to apply/sell/advise about AI that explicitly have committed to principles or guidelines for AI and/or to the tenets for AI of the Partnership on AI—tabulated according to their attitudes towards self-regulation of AI and towards governmental regulation of AI

Another tool of self-regulation, ethical codes, came to the fore sporadically. SAP advocates the development of a global code of conduct on ethical AI business practices which firms can sign up to.Footnote 74 While a global code is preferred, there might also be arguments for creating a European code or an industry-specific code. The consultancy firm Accenture, on their part, though approvingly making mention of the long-existing ethical code for software engineering (jointly produced by IEEE and ACM),Footnote 75 proposes the development of a new code for data ethics, as well as best practices for data sharing, at the level of the firm.Footnote 76 More broadly, they suggest that organizations produce a code of ethics for the data science profession, to be adhered to by data scientists in general.Footnote 77 This professional code may additionally inform codes tailored to a specific industry (healthcare, finance, etc.) or a specific organization.Footnote 78

Let me observe after this tabulation of AI self-regulation efforts at the industry level that one might be tempted to extend the scope of the ethics washing argument (cf. Section 4.2, in particular note 58) to include such initiatives: are corporations only interested in industrial self-regulation as a mere façade that may possibly weaken or delay prospective governmental regulation? In fact, companies talking about best practices, standards, or codes of ethics usually have stricter state regulation at the back of their minds, as a threat to be avoided. The ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is never far away. The SAP initiative just mentioned for a global code of conduct is a case in point. As their report states: ‘A code of conduct could help address public concerns around AI and, as such, serve as a market-driven alternative to AI-specific regulation, which might hinder the development of the new technology’.Footnote 79 The account of companies’ attitudes towards state regulation of AI below (Sect. 5.3.2 about the US firms in particular) will also bear this out: a preference for self-regulation of AI has been their default for long—until recent developments forced them to accept that proper regulation of AI could no longer be avoided. Nevertheless, although most often imbued with intentions to soften regulation, self-regulatory initiatives are not by definition to be interpreted as mere ‘ethics washing’—or more aptly as mere ‘standards washing’—since they may also create regulatory instruments, in this case best practices, standards, and ethical codes for responsible AI. These instruments have the potential to be effective in regulatory practice and cannot therefore be outright dismissed as just a façade.

After these findings about self-regulation, I will document the companies’ attitudes toward the other forms of regulation mentioned above—by civil society and by the state. Let me start with the former, less intrusive form of regulation.

5.2 Regulation of AI by Civil Society

Before going into the attitudes of the 24 committed firms towards civil regulation of AI, let me first chart the civil forces that are actually pushing towards responsible AI. Non-governmental organizations outside industry have produced and disseminated a raft of declarations about the importance of responsible AI and their commitment to it. These statements represent the main voices of civil society.Footnote 80 Prominent examples include the Toronto Declaration, the Universal Guidelines for AI, the Asilomar AI Principles, the Montreal Declaration, and the 10 principles for ethical AI from the UNI Global Union. Let me discuss each of them briefly.

‘The Toronto Declaration’ calls on both public and private sector actors to protect human rights in the age of AI, with a focus on equality, non-discrimination, and diversity.Footnote 81 In the declaration, several other aspects of responsible AI such as transparency, explainability, and accountability are touched upon as well. It had been drafted in 2018 by Amnesty International and Access Now (a New York University based institute doing research about the social implications of AI). Further, the ‘Universal Guidelines for AI’ covers almost verbatim the aspects of responsible AI (as listed in Table 2)—plus some more obligations (e.g., for data quality and public safety) and prohibitions (on secret profiling and unitary scoring).Footnote 82 These were formulated in 2018 by The Public Voice, a coalition set up in the 1990s to promote public participation in decision-making about the future of the Internet. Their goal is to bring civil society leaders and government officials together for ‘constructive engagement’. The ‘Asilomar AI Principles’ (2017), another prominent statement, covers most aspects of responsible AI (plus recommendations for research, science policy, and broader societal issues).Footnote 83 These were formulated during a workshop with AI researchers, organized by the Future of Life Institute, a Boston-based non-profit research organization. Furthermore, the ‘Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of AI’ promulgates 10 principles which also partly coincide with the Table 2 principles for responsible AI.Footnote 84 The outcome of a forum at the university of Montreal in 2017, involving hundreds of participants, the declaration ‘incorporates the concerns of all stakeholders in the field’Footnote 85 and is intended to ‘spark a broad dialogue between the public, the experts and government decision-makers’.Footnote 86 Finally, the UNI Global Union, a global federation of trade unions, has formulated the ‘Top 10 principles for ethical AI’, which at least partly cover the responsible AI principles (as in Table 2).Footnote 87 These principles are to be used by trade unions on the shop floor as demands for responsible AI.

As far as civil society is concerned, the 24 companies on my list have as a rule developed links focussing on principled AI with a whole spectrum of activist, professional, and academic organizations (through workshops, conferences, and the like); they talk with them incessantly and regularly report about these conversations on their websites. The question is: did the pressures from civil society (as prominently expressed in such declarations about responsible AI) result in any accommodating steps by the committed firms (listed in Table 1)? Did they accept a standard, a seal, a certification scheme (like for non-biased AI) or take specific action (like freezing the sale of emotion AI)—either in harmonious cooperation with civil society forces (private co-regulation), or as the outcome of being pressured by them (civil regulation)? It turns out that such regulatory outcomes have not been forthcoming—no material of the kind has been found. Regulation by civil society in one form or another has not materialized.Footnote 88

Even the modest beginning of just subscribing to declarations by civil society actors is (mostly) one bridge too far for them as I will show. Let me return to the calls for responsible AI promulgated by civil society. As far as these can be signed at all (the one from the UNI Global Union cannot), industrial signatures turn out to be far and few between. While the Universal Guidelines for AI are not signed by any firm and the Toronto Declaration has two company signatures, the Montreal Declaration has at any rate been signed by dozens of smaller, mostly Canadian, AI companies and consultancies. However, AI companies from my list of committed companies are not amongst the signatories.Footnote 89 The Asilomar Principles, finally, have garnered the signatures of hundreds of robotics researchers (most of them having contributed to their drafting in the first place). Dozens of them work for companies that figure on my list of committed companies (Table 1). For example, researchers from IBM (five in toto) and Google (three in toto) are well represented. Their signatures, however, commit them as individuals only—the organizations they belong to are not bound by their signatures.

So, the 24 committed companies that I have been investigating just do not want to accommodate civil society actors concerning responsible AI—let alone yield to pressure from them. The forces of civil society—their lobbying efforts obviously not strong enough to impose themselves—are kept at a distance.Footnote 90 However, at the time of finishing this manuscript, one prominent exception to this rule occurred: the case of facial recognition software. Mid-2020 Amazon and Microsoft announced that they would pause its sale to police departments, while IBM even decided to stop selling and researching the software altogether. However, these decisions were not so much inspired by the organizations of civil society and their declarations mentioned above. Instead, they were mainly prompted by continuous societal pressure over the years from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), supported by individual AI researchers from both academia and firms selling facial recognition software. This appears to be the first instance of civil regulation proper of AI materializing.Footnote 91

5.3 Governmental Regulation of AI

It has to be borne in mind that a great many governmental organizations, at both national and international levels, have also been pushing for principled AI from 2016 onwards. Their statements about proper principles for AI are not to be mistaken.Footnote 92 Ultimately, these recommendations may converge on new policies and fresh legislative proposals. What about the attitude of the 24 committed companies towards such regulation by the state? Table 4 gives an overview of the results. As can be seen, just 10 of them have issued statements about governmental regulation of AI. These have their headquarters either in Europe or in the USA, each with their own distinct regulatory ‘climate’; or they are truly global (McKinsey).

5.3.1 European Companies

Let me start with the eight committed AI companies from Europe on my list: just three of them have taken an explicit stance on the matter (Telefónica, Tieto, and SAP). European preparations for regulation of AI, driven by the European Commission, have been going on for years now (cf. their recent ‘White Paper on AI: a European approach to excellence and trust’Footnote 93 that focusses on ex ante regulation of high-risk AI). For Telefónica and Tieto, in the meantime, this governmental regulation has become a fact of life. Acquiescing in the approach, they take part in the many EU deliberations about it and just try to soften the bureaucratic edges that—in their view—might hinder innovation.

Their largely concurring statements can be paraphrased as follows.Footnote 94 The definition of high-risk AI activities is to be further specified (with high opportunity also to be considered in the definition), the provision of concrete use cases of high-risk AI would help to reduce uncertainty for the companies involved, and the focus is to be on specific AI applications (such as autonomous vehicles)—not on AI technologies. More importantly, regulation of AI risks being slow and hindering innovation. It therefore has to become ‘smarter’: experiment with so-called ‘regulatory sandboxes’ in which companies can try out innovative approaches while the regulator keeps close watch and may intervene if necessary.Footnote 95 Telefónica summarizes this approach nicely: ‘Industry self-regulation, policy modernization and smarter regulatory supervision should be combined for a new approach’.Footnote 96 Note that this is nothing other than a plea for modernized ‘enforced self-regulation’.Footnote 97

As for SAP, earlier on (in 2018), the German business software company had tried to stem the tide by adopting the position that no new specific EU regulation on AI would be needed: ‘The current EU regulatory framework is sufficiently robust and does apply to AI. We caution policy makers against rushing into specific AI legislative initiatives that could hinder the development of AI and create legal inconsistencies’.Footnote 98 The only action that they recommended was the review of existing legal frameworks as to their applicability towards issues of AI—in particular, privacy, consumer protection, liability, and intellectual property rights. Subsequently, the EU Commission has effectively brushed their position aside by insisting on new ethical guidelines and (ultimately) legislation for AI—and SAP has proceeded to join the deliberations on them (by becoming a member of the AI HLEG and engaging in advocacy lobbying concerning European legislation).

5.3.2 US Companies

Let us next turn to the 11 committed companies on my list headquartered in the USA. Table 4 shows that six of them have issued elaborate statements about governmental regulation of AI—all of them in favour of such regulation; or rather, more accurately, with each of them emphasizing the need for particular AI technologies or particular AI applications to be regulated.Footnote 99 This is remarkable, since until recently they largely kept silent about regulation—self-regulation being their default position. But from 2018 onwards, their stances have evolved. Microsoft was the first large company to publicly embrace governmental regulation concerning AI; soon after, other large companies reluctantly followed suit. Their changing attitudes towards regulation will be presented below in chronological order of their ‘conversion’. Moreover, I treat Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and Google first, since their conversions were mostly triggered by the facial recognition issue; subsequently, I present the positions adopted by Intel and Facebook, which are mainly related to the issue of privacy.

Microsoft has arguably been the first large company (involved in AI) to argue for new AI legislation. In January 2018, in a book about the future of AI, they still held a cautious position which can be summarized as follows.Footnote 100 Current laws do already, to some extent, protect privacy and security of personal information, govern credit or employment decisions, and the like. ‘AI law’ will inevitably emerge as a new legal topic, but ‘before devising new regulations or laws, there needs to be some clarity about the fundamental issues and principles that must be addressed’.Footnote 101 Stakeholders need sufficient time to identify the key principles for AI and implement them by adopting best practices.

Half a year later, the company drastically changed course: the time for deliberation was over. Spurred by the bitter controversies over facial recognition software (on account of the threat of ubiquitous surveillance and charges of gender and racial bias), Microsoft published a blog that argued that ‘the only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself. […] This in fact is what we believe is needed today — a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology […]’. Bi-partisan expert committees of Congress should prepare future legislation for its use in the USA. Note that the blog did not fail to mention that Microsoft, inspired by the same arguments, had been in support of the regulation of privacy for the last 15 years (the GDPR in particular).Footnote 102

Next, let me discuss Amazon, their Amazon Web Services (AWS) in particular. The company has long tried to remain aloof from discussions about ethical AI and take no position. In the words of AWS executive Peter Stanski: ‘It is up to clients to decide whether their use of AWS tools is ethical’.Footnote 103 Several controversial AI-related issues forced the platform to change tack. First, their AI recruiting tool had to be halted (2017), since it exhibited bias towards non-whites and women. Subsequently, their facial recognition tool (Rekognition) came under attack. Leading AI researchers from industry and academia condemned the tool for gender and racial bias, and their own employees and shareholders urged the company to halt the sale of the tool to law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, after two years of haggling, Amazon reluctantly suspended the sale to police departments for a year (June 2020).Footnote 104 In the process, AWS proposed guidelines for future legislative regulation of facial recognition software in law enforcement (human review of results, a confidence level of 99%, transparency reports, public notification whenever video surveillance and facial recognition are in combined use) (February 2019).Footnote 105 Thus, for the first time, AWS gave their support to regulation of a specific AI application. Jeff Bezos formulated his pragmatic approval as follows: ‘It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it. At the same time, there’s lots of potential for abuses of that technology, so you do want regulation’.Footnote 106

IBM has also been drawn into the regulation debate because of facial recognition issues. In 2019, they instituted their IBM Policy Lab that is tasked with developing propositions for policies for the digital age. Their approach towards governmental regulation of AI is designated as ‘Precision Regulation’. Such regulation is to target specific applications of AI and analyse in detail where along the chain of application risks to society may occur. Subsequently, regulatory rules have to be formulated in proportion to the risks to be contained: more stringent rules for high-risk situations, more relaxed rules for low-risk situations. In particular, they propose that governments designate standard developing organizations of choice (like NIST and CENELEC) and ask them to develop international standards. Adherence to these standards (as exemplified in certification) would be evidence of compliance with the law (‘safe harbour protection’).Footnote 107 As a novel element, the corporation proposes that governments finance AI test beds in which stakeholders from civil society can put forward their point of view about responsible AI.Footnote 108 In further notes about respectively harmful content online and facial recognition technology, IBM explicitly presents this approach as allowing to steer between the extremes of laissez-faire on the one hand and a blanket ban on the other.Footnote 109 Clearly, IBM is a protagonist of states and markets jointly establishing a regulatory regime—the tenor is one of hybrid regulation.Footnote 110

Google was the last company to join the chorus of firms clamouring for fresh regulation. Throughout 2019, it had stuck to the position that ‘in the majority of cases, general legal frameworks and existing sector-specific processes will continue to provide an appropriate governance structure’.Footnote 111 Acknowledging that sometimes ‘additional oversight’ might be needed, their report about AI governance declared that ‘we look forward to engaging with governments, industry practitioners, and civil society on these topics’—for example, topics related to new weapons or police surveillance.Footnote 112 Then, in February 2020, their CEO Sundar Pichai published an article in the Financial Times, in which he came around to AI regulation: ‘[…] there is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated’. Governments have to assume a regulatory role. For regulation to be sensible, it must ‘take a proportionate approach, balancing potential harms, especially in high-risk areas, with social opportunities’. While sometimes existing frameworks suffice (such as the GDPR for privacy, and regulation of medical devices), new frameworks may also be needed, as for self-driving vehicles.Footnote 113 In a Brussels’ interview (20 February 2020), he even lent support to a temporary ban on facial recognition technology.Footnote 114

The last two US firms to be discussed, Intel and Facebook, are mainly concerned with AI regulation from the perspective of privacy. Their positions have also been shifting gradually. In 2017, Intel just stated that regulators should exercise oversight and intervene where necessary—but within the existing legal frameworks. Companies were to be guided by the Fair Information Practice Principles (as formulated by the OECD) and be able to demonstrate to regulators that they adhere to them.Footnote 115 One year later, Intel slightly changed its tune and pleaded for ‘new legislative and regulatory initiatives’ (October 2018). These should be comprehensive, meaning that all potential issues of privacy are to be covered by these new laws. Moreover, these should be technology neutral. At the same time, they should support the free flow of data.Footnote 116

Facebook, on their part, has also long been averse to any regulation of their activities. However, as pressures on both sides of the Atlantic mounted on account of data leaks and apparent privacy violations, the firm realized that this attitude would harm their interests in the long run. CEO Mark Zuckerberg therefore changed course and declared that issues such as harmful content and hate speech, election integrity, privacy, and data portability were areas in which new regulation would be welcome (30 March 2019).Footnote 117

Let me confine myself to their position on two of those issues that are becoming more and more dependent on AI: privacy and harmful content. As concerns privacy, Zuckerberg has publicly embraced the GDPR, both as actually in force in Europe and as a model to be pursued in the US legislation.Footnote 118 It remains to be seen, of course, whether Facebook’s actual data practices from then on have respected the letter (let alone the spirit) of the European Directive. Concerning harmful content, Facebook has seized the initiative and published a detailed report about possible ways to regulate such content, distinguishing between the approaches of ‘procedural accountability’ and of meeting ‘performance standards’ for taking down harmful content.Footnote 119 Currently, they actually police incoming content themselves along these lines. By their own estimate, hate speech and misinformation detected on their platform are mostly (up to 90%) discovered by AI tools—either based on natural language modelling or capable of identifying multimodal hate speech (text plus images).Footnote 120 The company has also initiated the establishment of an independent Oversight Board, which is to decide about individual cases brought forward and about content policies.Footnote 121 This board represents a form of self-regulation, instituted in lieu of (inter)national regulation which is, of course, a politically charged topic that is unlikely to be successful in the short run. Finally, during the 2020 US elections and their aftermath, Facebook (Facebook, WhatsApp) —as well as Google (YouTube) and Twitter—came under heavy fire and initiated their own stricter censoring of hateful rhetoric and disinformation on their social media—mainly by relying more heavily on automated censoring with AI tools.Footnote 122

5.3.3 Global Companies

Finally, it remains to present the position of McKinsey & Co on regulation of AI. This consulting firm no longer maintains a corporate headquarters—thereby straddling the regulatory regimes of the EU and the USA, of the whole world actually. It has published detailed reports about the future of AI in healthcare, education, and the automotive sector.Footnote 123 Throughout them, it stresses the need for companies to proactively engage with regulators and regulatory issues—to them, there is simply no way around it. Suggestions for the regulatory regime (particularly in healthcare)Footnote 124 are manifold: standards are to be created proactively together with governments, regulatory sandboxes are to be instituted, governments are to establish centres of excellence (populated by experts on issues of AI) that support the creation of regulatory rules concerning specific AI applications, and frameworks for accountability and liability concerning AI are to be determined. In these remarks, we observe again (as with Telefónica and Tieto) a plea for ‘smarter’ hybrid regulation.

6 Regulation of AI: Overview and Discussion

The remarks about self-regulation at the industry level made by the 24 AI companies committed to AI principles predominantly refer to the need for future best practices and standards. As far as regulation by or co-regulation with civil society is concerned, a phenomenon well known in the case of environmental issues, no evidence has been found that civil society actors have effectively exerted any regulatory influence concerning AI on the corporations on my list of 24 (or any other firms for that matter); the committed companies succeeded in keeping the pressure from civil society at bay. Only recently (mid-2020), an exception came to the fore: Amazon and Microsoft were effectively forced to halt the sale of facial recognition software to police departments—IBM even decided to abandon that line of software altogether. Concerning governmental regulation of AI, though, many lengthy comments were aired, all pointing to a definite need for such regulation. These explicit ‘conversions’ to the view that AI needs to be regulated, surprising as they are, deserve some more analysis.

The statements—by three European companies, six US companies, and one global company on my list—exhibit some remarkable commonalities. As a model for regulation of AI, the risk-based approach has widely been embraced: the higher the risks that a specific AI application in a specific context of use generates, the tighter the regulation required. In Europe, the approach has already become the norm for law makers (and as such at the heart of the EU ‘White Paper on AI’)Footnote 125; the European companies in my sample have come to take it for granted. In the USA, the approach has only more recently gathered public attention. Especially, IBM and Google constitute a kind of vanguard with their explicit pleas to follow the European example and embrace risk-based regulation wherever applicable.

Noticeably, several comments from the companies involved indicate efforts towards softening the edges of ‘hard’ regulation. IBM recommends that governments designate bodies of choice that develop standardization and certification processes that guarantee conformity with the law, while both Telefónica and Tieto (as well as McKinsey) toy with the idea of regulatory sandboxes that give participants free rein to experiment with AI—both examples of hybrid regulation with the state receding into the background.

Further, some of the above comments explicitly place such regulation on a regulatory scale: between laissez-faire on the one hand and a ban or moratorium on technology uses on the other. Risk-based regulation gets imbued with the idea of being the ‘reasonable’ middle course: avoiding societal catastrophes while letting innovation and economic activity continue. Let me quote from comments by Microsoft and IBM. As concerns facial recognition technology, Microsoft emphasizes that ‘unless we act, we risk waking up five years from now to find that facial recognition services have spread in ways that exacerbate societal issues’. A ‘commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success’, is to be avoided. Instead, a ‘floor of responsibility’ is to be built, and only the rule of law can do so.Footnote 126 Note that Microsoft has always been vehemently opposed to bans of any kind. In a similar vein, IBM stresses that their ‘precision regulation’ represents the reasonable balance par excellence: it ‘emphasizes carefully targeting policy to address legitimate concerns while promoting innovation […]’. About possible bans, Big Blue remarks that ‘[…] blanket bans on technology are not the answer to concerns around specific use cases. Casting such a wide regulatory net runs the very real risk of cutting us off from the many — and potentially life-saving — benefits these technologies offer’.Footnote 127

In the above statements by the US companies about regulation of AI, many aspects of applied AI are mentioned as involving risks and therefore suitable candidates for regulation: issues such as privacy and online content moderation, and applications such as biometrical identification, self-driving cars, and drones. But no application has drawn so much attention, nay, ire, as facial recognition software. It has been a real catalyst for fuelling discussions about the future regulation of AI. The risks involved are those of biased results (against non-whites and women in particular), privacy violations, and unrestrained mass surveillance. Over the last four years, several incidents have been reported of such software malfunctioning. At various times Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM have all been the target of serious criticisms of the kind, mainly voiced by AI researchers from various corporations and academia and by the ACLU. As a result, their software offerings had to be updated repeatedly. Ultimately, amidst the Black Lives Matter protests, Amazon and Microsoft decided to pause their sales of facial recognition services to the police. IBM even decided to leave the facial recognition business altogether.

Simultaneously, a flurry of new US laws have been proposed at both federal and state levels. These target not only facial recognition software but also more broadly biometrical identification, privacy, algorithmic decision-making, and more. Restrictions are often tailored to the specific use context: companies, public spaces, public institutions, police departments, shops, state rental units, etc. A focus on actually getting new regulatory legislation accepted has, we may conclude, actually been set in motion.Footnote 128

In these deliberations, for one thing, many civil society organizations take part. Especially, the ACLU is a vocal critic of new technologies that appear to threaten civil liberties. Their position on facial recognition software has consistently been that it has to be put to a legal halt until stringent conditions have been met. The ACLU represents a formidable civil force inside these legislative debates.Footnote 129 For another, the companies actually developing the new technologies at issue also take part in these deliberations on future laws. The committees involved as a rule invite all interested parties to show up and voice their opinions. Take the deliberations around the Washington State bill about facial recognition software. The main players took part: Amazon, trying to ease restrictions,Footnote 130 as well as Microsoft with its agenda, which included trying to take a ban from the table.

This raises, of course, the shadow of regulatory capture. One such instance already appears to have occurred. Microsoft has been publishing repeatedly about facial recognition software. In December 2018, in particular, a Microsoft blog enumerated the issues that regulation of the software should address. As concerns possible bias, the law is to require full documentation, allow independent testing, make human review of consequential decisions based on facial recognition mandatory, and introduce guarantees against unlawful discrimination. If facial recognition is employed, considerations of privacy require putting up conspicuous notices and asking for consumer consent. Finally, in order to safeguard human rights, surveillance is only to be allowed in special circumstances.Footnote 131 Remarkably, requirements of the kind have actually—after much haggling—ended up in the Washington State law that finally passed in March 2020 (Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6280).Footnote 132 Not much of a surprise, since the bill had actually been written by a senator who is also employed by Microsoft (Joe Nguyen).

Noticeably, the same charge of regulatory capture can be heard in Europe. It has in particular been levelled against the AI HLEG set up by the EU. Corporate interests are argued to have a disproportionate influence on this advisory body (Opoku, 2019, Vasse’i 2019). Reportedly, these have prevented the mentioning of bans (non-negotiable ‘red lines’) on lethal autonomous weapons and social credit scoring systems in the EU ‘Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI’ (2019).Footnote 133

A more thorough evaluation of the new approaches to regulation of AI and their actual implementation is indicated of course: what are the pros and cons of these regulatory efforts? What do they bring for society in general and for companies in particular? What role do the companies involved actually play in their shaping? Do their actions square with their stated intentions (as explored in Sect. 5)? To answer these questions, the time is not ripe though: (self-)regulation of AI is just starting to crystallize. The ultimate shape of standards, codes, laws, and their implementation will be what matters. Only if we are able to zoom in on all their details will judgments be possible. Anyway, whenever the time is right, it will be an undertaking of its own, going far beyond my present framework of investigating AI companies and their pledges to the cause of responsible AI.

7 Conclusion: Towards Proper Accounting for Responsible AI

From 2016 onwards, as many as 24 AI companies worldwide have publicly committed to principles for responsible AI (Table 1). Between them, the principles are virtually identical (Table 2). Subsequently some of these firms (cf. Table 3) instituted appropriate governance mechanisms internally, provided their employees with new materials and training about principled AI, developed novel software tools for each of the core qualities of such AI (fairness, explainability, security/privacy), and drafted proposals for accountability. Also, a couple of these firms are currently devoting large funds to newly erected academic departments or programmes focussing on research into aspects of responsible AI. Although the ‘new governance’ for responsible AI needs a more thorough appraisal, all other efforts, in my view, definitely represent steps forward on the road to responsible AI. Charges that the community of AI experts has a ‘preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles’ which betrays a penchant for ‘technological solutionism’ may be accurate, but the fruits of those preoccupations and penchants constitute indispensable elements for making progress towards responsible AI.

Further, several European and American companies on the list of committed firms (Table 1) have publicly declared that fresh state regulation of AI is the preferred option for the future (cf. Table 4). Especially for the US companies amongst them, this represents a drastic break with past convictions, probably having much to do with the continuous societal unrest about the uses of facial recognition software. The firms involved appear to bet on reining in the high-risk applications of AI, as a middle road between outright banning technology and laissez-faire. This willingness to let their AI applications be regulated by society may also, in my view, be considered a step forward—although the danger of regulatory capture looms large in view of the fact that the companies in question not only have large amounts of money at their disposal for lobbying activities, but also command a large proportion of the AI capabilities in society—which they will not hesitate to put to proper use in the regulatory process.

What has to happen for the responsible AI agenda to be pushed forward? Obviously, the agenda has to be embraced by larger segments of society, in particular by the great many other AI companies that are not to be found on my list. The 24 committed AI companies, though, especially those that put the AI principles into practice and embraced high-risk regulation, can also continue to contribute. As a vanguard, they may try and connect the two strands presented above. Their members have promised to deliver only AI that is responsible and declared that they are willing to let themselves be subjected to appropriate legislation. Let them take one further step and affirm that they will accept any invitation to actually be called to account by regulatory agencies in sectors such as finance, health, justice, education, and the like. Instances of AI companies actually complying with requests for accountability in a spirit of cooperation would further the cause of principled AI.

Studies about accountability concerning AI are steadily accumulating and can be of use in the process. Compare a report from AI Now (2018) that argues that existing regulatory frameworks for the US public agencies (in sectors such as health and criminal justice) have to be supplemented with fresh practical frameworks to assess automated decision systems.Footnote 134 The agencies are to be enabled to perform ‘algorithmic impact assessments’ (focussing on aspects such as bias and fairness in AI) which may include ‘external researchers and auditors’ in the process. Assessments are to take place before an AI solution is reached as well as regularly afterwards, while the system is running. Due process mechanisms are to be made available to affected communities.

A report from the Partnership on AI (2019) represents an even more radical proposal.Footnote 135 Focussing on the use of AI risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system, it argues that an independent outside body consisting of ‘legal, technical, and statistical experts, currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, public defenders, public prosecutors, judges, and civil rights organizations’ must regularly perform audits of the tools (with a focus on all aspects of responsible AI).Footnote 136 In particular, ‘training datasets, architectures, algorithms, and models’ should be available to outside research communities for criticism.Footnote 137

This final step of AI companies actually conforming to public audits and readily providing all necessary details about their algorithms is a spectacle that has to unfold yet. Fortunately, Google, Microsoft, and IBM themselves have developed novel accountability tools (cf. above) that may be put to good use when assessments as just mentioned have to be performed. However, scepticism whether this will happen any time soon is not unwarranted, since the argument that algorithmic details need to be protected as trade secrets still seems to enjoy support amongst AI companies both large and small. As a result, any ‘data sheets’, ‘model cards’, or ‘fact sheets’ submitted risk to be full of unfilled blanks, while companies prefer to leave out ‘secret’ information.