AI ethics is definitely trending. I’ve seen the phrase in my reading and heard it trip from the tongues of professional acquaintances many times in the past several months.

Management fads come and go, and I wonder whether AI ethics might be one of them. In much the same way that product quality deficiencies triggered the ISO9000 fever of the 1990s and corporate malfeasance stoked the Sarbanes-Oxley mania of the 2000s, anxieties surrounding AI’s misuse are now the focus of much soul-searching in business and technical circles.

Fads fade when society realizes they may have been overblown or that they proposed changes in the status quo that didn’t make sense beyond a niche subculture. As we examine the anxieties behind the ethical AI movement, we must ask whether they’ve been hyped out of proportion by mainstream culture. We must also ask whether the approaches being proposed for instilling ethics in the business AI development and operations are truly taking hold or are likely to ensure that ethically dubious AI applications never see the light of day.

One of the things that concerns me about today’s AI ethics mania is the top-down nature of how it’s being addressed by corporate management. What I’d like to see is working data scientists building ethics-assurance safeguards into their development and operations workflows. Instead, it appears that upper-echelon business executives are driving the show through committees, working groups, and other talk-intensive business-suit exercises of a non-binding, advisory nature.