An Interdisciplinary Approach to Defining Ethical AI

This article, written by Jonathan McVerry at the Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, originally appeared on The Arthur W. Page Center website on Oct. 6, 2023. Reposted with permission. 

As the capabilities of artificial intelligence continue to increase, corporate use of AI and its ability to analyze data deserve a serious examination. Specifically, how are companies using AI to make decisions and drive business? As AI evolves, how can communicators continue its use in an ethical manner? Scholars Won-Ki Moon, University of Florida [College of Journalism and Communications Advertising assistant professor], and Sangwook Lee, Penn State, are leading a study to help discern what makes certain AI use ethical or unethical. Current literature on the subject is light, and many government and academic entities are calling for such an examination.

As part of the Page Center’s 2023 call for research proposals on digital analytics, the scholars will conduct a three-part interdisciplinary study to reveal the challenges of using AI in the organizational setting. Moon, who discusses this project below, has been a scholar since 2020. Lee is a Ph.D. student at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and a first-time Page Center scholar.

Please talk about your collaboration and how your work and research interests overlap.

I study the roles of new technologies in strategic communication. I’m most interested in the consumer part and how communication can make the public’s lives better. These days, I am focused on artificial intelligence — how this technological innovation is changing our lives and how we can apply AI for the social good. Although AI is applied in diverse industries for data analytics, there are not many discussions on how we can use AI ethically. So, that was the starting point of why I am interested in this topic. I need Sangwook’s help with this project because his expertise is in the area of human-AI interaction, primarily focused on individuals’ perceptions and the use of AI. We believe understanding AI ethics is an excellent intersection between our research interests and our expertise and will be useful in examining ethical data analytics for strategic communication professionals.

Can you share an example of how a company can use AI to analyze data?

One example is an online behavioral advertisement (OBA), which is automated advertising placement. Today, however, OBA automatically showcases highly targeted ads to users in real-time, tailored to their preferences and behavior. OBA needs diverse data collection by computer programs with algorithms. Before OBA, advertisers would have a banner ad that they’d place on the diverse web pages based on their own audience analytics. Advertisers need to analyze the data to examine which placement is most important for the brand. These programs share the collected data with another algorithm that calculates the data to find the placement that will be best for advertisers. That is, every time consumers face an advertisement, behind the scenes, there are many algorithms and many AI tools that place the advertisement automatically. For many consumers, and even ad experts, it is tough to understand what is going on behind the scenes and how it works.

It sounds complicated. So, how can AI in advertising be used unethically?

The definition of ethical and unethical behavior sounds easy, but it’s difficult in the field of AI and AI-powered data analytics. Evaluating ‘whether AI is ethical’ is very difficult because many people have different ideas about AI ethics. Some researchers argue the legal aspect is a good standard, while others assume that the concept of ethical AI applications should include “good for society.” Embracing those discussions, our research aims to provide a new and comprehensive approach to defining AI ethics in advertising and public relations. To do so, we will start at some theoretical foundations from previous studies on privacy, accountability, transparency, and fairness, which empower consumers with more control over their valuable information. However, we believe that there ultimately needs to be a more active level of ethics for the application of AI and algorithms in strategic communication.

For the interview part of your study, is there concern that it’s too early or AI is advancing too quickly, and your interviewees might not have much to say?

When we talk about AI, it’s like the invisible engine behind many tools we use daily. Take PR agencies, for example; they often use tools to gauge what people are saying about brands on social media. These tools are, in many cases, powered by AI. Similarly, advertisers use tools to understand consumers better or to plan their media strategies. So, even if people don’t realize it, AI plays a significant role in shaping many decisions and strategies in today’s ad and PR fields.

Can you go over the three studies? What is your timeline?

Sangwook and I are investigating literature reviews on this issue. Because it is a very interdisciplinary topic, we need to read articles on ethics, philosophy, and computer science, as well as articles on advertising and PR. We are defining them and what kind of tests we need to understand the level of knowledge on the ethical use of AI or the ethical use of AI-powered digital analytics. We will begin looking for and contacting interviewees when we wrap up the literature review this winter. Hopefully, we can start with our interviews this winter. Then, based on these interview data, we will design and conduct a survey for the more general employees in various industries in early spring.

What do you hope to learn from this study? What are some practical uses you hope to gain from its results?

We will be able to collect the current PR and advertising employees’ thinking about AI and their organizations’ attitudes to the application of AI. We can also study how ad/PR people understand the ethical application of AI and their perception of ethical AI. Our data collection isn’t limited to AI experts; it also encompasses individuals in the ad/PR industries who might not be familiar with AI. Using this data, we will display how organizations use AI-powered data analytics with a focus on employees, their experience, and their knowledge, which will help business leaders and CEOs make ethical guidelines for their organizations that are authentic.

What is the Page Center’s role in helping with your research and this project?

The Page Center is a really great thing to have for strategic communication scholars. Through the Center, I have met many PR scholars who have very different backgrounds and who have very different scholarly interests, but we have a common interest in public communication and the public interest. I believe the Page Center is a really great place that supports the work between scholars and also connects scholars. Every year, when I go to the Page Center’s Research Roundtables, it’s great to meet everyone who can share similar research interests in public communication. The center’s projects help researchers keep conducting research on topics that can easily be ignored by corporations and organizations. So, I believe the Page Center’s Legacy Scholar Program is very useful and precious for scholars needing that kind of support.


Posted: November 9, 2023
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