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Workers in the AI sector are quitting over ethical concerns

An “alarming” number of UK tech workers have left their jobs over fears about the impact of the tools they are building, according to a damning report by Doteveryone.

The think tank, which was launched by Lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox in 2015, commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 tech workers to canvas views about the ethics of the industry.

It found that one one in four (28 per cent) had witnessed decisions which they thought would have a negative impact on society, and that nearly (18 per cent) of those had left their jobs as a result.

But those figures rose significantly in the artificial intelligence sector, where 59 per cent said they had seen businesses make potentially harmful decisions and 27 per cent of those employees then quit.

“Any entrepreneur knows that hiring and keeping good people is one of the secrets of a successful business,” said Lane Fox (pictured).

“This research shows that irresponsible and unethical behaviour means alarming numbers of talented people are stepping away from tech jobs they fear have negative social consequences.”

Research by Oxford Economics found that when a tech worker quits their job, it costs their employer an average of £30,000. Doteveryone claims that there is therefore a business case for developing tech products in an ethical manner.

“Socially motivated developers and designers are walking away from jobs that are bad for society, so UK businesses that meet their teams’ demands to work responsibly will have a new competitive advantage,” said Doteveryone chief executive Rachel Coldicutt.

The European Union recently set out plans to make Europe the world leader in ethical AI, but plans to do so with a series of unenforced guidelines. While 81 per cent said of employees said tech has benefited society as a whole, 45 per cent said the sector is regulated too little.

Despite a significant number of workers expressing unease at the nature of the tasks they had been required to do, the survey found that 79 per cent of those who raised concerns were satisfied with the outcome.

“The report makes clear that where companies have processes to enable ethical questions to be flagged and addressed these are often very effective,” said Antony Walker, deputy chief executive of trade body TechUK.

“For companies keen to retain the best tech talent this report highlights the need to ensure that employees are empowered to raise concerns as technology is being developed.”

Speaking on the BBC Today Programme on Monday morning, Brhmie Balaram, associate director of the Royal Society of Arts, said: “We shouldn’t be depending on these workers to risk their livelihoods. What we need is actually much more willingness from these companies to proactively and meaningfully engage with governments and citizens in order to develop responsible AI.”

Doteveryone’s research was funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Innovate UK and the Omidyar Network.