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What even is Transparency, and what does it have to do with AI?

What even is transparency?

Transparency. A word that I first came across whilst learning how to describe liquids in science class is now at the forefront of debates surrounding the use of AI by businesses. In these debates, ‘transparency’ is defined in a variety of ways. One definition states that transparency relates to “how much it is possible to understand about a system’s inner workings” whilst another simply describes transparency as “disclosing when AI is being used” in a certain context.


As you can tell then, what exactly transparency is seems be massively affected by the topic of the debate: whether it is technical, logistical or ethical in nature. Whilst a logical next step in this blog would be to dive into the complex nitty-gritty of how exactly transparency is described in relation to AI systems across these various debates, I think a better idea is to just take a big step back and ask - what is transparency? Away from the liquids, the machines and the debates, what does it actually mean to be transparent?


The root of transparency

If I asked you right now what being transparent means, it’s likely that you’d say something along the lines of “it means being honest”. At least, this was the knee-jerk response that I had to the question. After pondering it for little longer though, you realise that there must be something more fundamental to transparency, something that really explains its departure from plain-old honesty.


Well, after exploring the literature on the distinction between these two values of truth, I can tell you that there is a difference. In short, being transparent in a certain context requires one to possess a certain awareness; an awareness about what truth needs to be expressed and at what time. By way of contrast, honesty lack this awareness, and only requires one to know that some truth needs to be expressed and only at some time. In simple terms, the distinction can be outlined as follows: “Honesty is telling the truth when I’m asked. Transparency is telling the truth because it deserves to be known.” In this way, transparency can be understood as an evolution away from honesty; it requires a certain knowledge of the truth – a knowledge that gives individuals the power to be actively honest in the world, communicating their truth at the right time and in the right way, and to the right audience.


Within a business context, possessing and wielding such a superpower is vital, not only because it is ethical excellence, but also because it comes with a whole host of benefits that can turbocharge your commercial goals.


Transparent AI and its benefits

Nowhere is transparency currently more beneficial than in the field of AI. Every year we have seen astronomical growth in AI research, innovation and production. Emerging out of this growth has been the developing requirement for such progress to occur in a responsible and ethical manner. According to a report by IBM, business executives ranking AI as important jumped from less than 50% in 2018 to 75% in 2021, and more recently, we have had governments and international bodies advocating for more attention to be placed on the ethics of AI.


Within a business context, the need for ethicality became even more essential after the world collectively witnessed many big tech companies failing to act in the right way, and subsequently, taking massive hits to their reputation, and to their market value. One of the most notorious cases of this was Meta and their scandal involving Cambridge Analytica; it was only last year that they paid $725 million to settle legal action over their data breaches. This type of scandal, in combination with the ever-developing academic literature on the ethicality of AI – which, on Google Scholar, makes up half of the search results surrounding AI, has fuelled massive interest in the field.


The manifestation of this interest is the effort that is being made to identify and promote specific ethical values that can serve to represent the requirement for responsible and ethical growth in AI. Transparency is 1 of 5 values leading the way in ethical AI values, and features alongside justice and fairness, non-maleficence, responsibility and privacy. Its adoption by business in AI represents an intent to share the relevant technicalities of their AI systems, and when necessary, the inner-workings of their business. Many companies are currently championing such an approach, and in doing so, are representing themselves as responsible leaders in the sector.


That being said, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be boundaries surrounding what information is shared and with who, as a proper understanding of transparency comes with an understanding of what information is ethically wise to present to the public, and what information is best kept more private. Nowhere is this clearer than in the discussion that currently surrounds Generative AI, where the power of the technology is forcing companies to think carefully about how much access can be given to the public. OpenAI’s approach to the transparency of GPT-4 is a prime example of this. In general though, the adoption of transparency by businesses communicates to the sector and to society that they understand the responsibility they have as a producer and possessor of AI technology.


Further still, championing transparency also comes with some tangible business benefits, benefits that are a direct result of a company’s willingness to operate ethically. One of the most significant and powerful benefits that results from the adoption of transparency as a business value is the cultivation of trust. Within a business context, when you are open with others, they have less to be wary of, and therefore have less to lose. The upshot of this is that customers, employees, investors and stakeholders will trust that what you say is actually the case. This will lead to them being more on board with your vision, more impressed by your growth, and ultimately, more likely to believe in your business. Done right – the adoption of transparency as a business value can lead to increased customer loyalty, increases in product purchasing, increased investment and more frequent public and private endorsements. In sum – transparency, as a result of its ability to cultivate trust, can supercharge the productivity and the profitability of your product and of your business. It is a superpower, and it is one that we should all be seeking to harness.


The series

In the coming months, I will be building on this deep-dive into transparency by exploring the case studies that reveal the ways in which its adoption and rejection can fundamentally affect the success of a business. Using the masterful story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ as an analogy, we will identify the appropriate commercial expression of transparency that is too much, too little, and just right. In doing so, you will gain an insight into the qualities required to set yourself and your business up for new horizons as a leader, and a champion, in the field of responsible technology.

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