Text: Nienke Beintema | Photography: Dieuwertje Bravenboer
Avoiding the ethical pitfalls of a data-driven world
4TU.techtalks | Remarkable new technologies are developed every single day. From robotics to precision medicine and from IT to climate technology, many of the innovations are transforming the way we live and interact.
The advantages are manifold, but there are also risks. Aiming to address this challenge responsibly, insurance company Achmea wants to prepare for this in a responsible way and is supported in this process by 4TU.
Nobody can possibly object: new technologies must be sustainable, democratic and fair. They must ensure their users’ autonomy, security and privacy. But what do those values actually mean? Are they universal, or subject to interpretation? In fact, who decides what is allowed and which risks we accept in technological designs? And what about our standards and values themselves – to what extent are they influenced by technological developments?
These are all extremely complex questions that have no simple answers. Yet they need to be addressed when setting frameworks for new developments. Increasingly, it’s not only engineers and politicians who are looking into these questions, but also ethicists and philosophers. They are trained to look beyond the boundaries of disciplines, business sectors, cultures and generations.
“The world is completely different now compared to some 20 years ago,” says Philip Brey, professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Twente. “Many developments are based on what we now call 'big data': enormous amounts of data. These have become very important for many organizations, who use them extract all kinds of valuable information. At the same time, there are many complex dilemmas involved. Technological, but certainly also socio-ethical. ”
“We are now transitioning to being a ‘digital and data-driven insurance company’,” says Karin Bos, Director Non-Life Insurance Private Individuals at Achmea. “We think it is very important that we don’t let ourselves be guided by the technological push, but that we keep in control of the implications. That is why we called in the help of the University of Twente in 2019.”
Is this currently an issue in the insurance world?
Karin: “The more data we have, the more we can differentiate. Achmea was founded over two centuries ago, when a small group of farmers in Friesland shared the risk of a hay fire. The farmers knew each other, and they held each other accountable for their actions. They did their utmost to prevent a fire, but if a fire did break out on one of their properties, they would share the cost of the damage. Today, this solidarity principle is a lot less tangible. People sometimes feel less responsible for preventing damage. But things may also go wrong on the insurer’s side. The hardening of competition among car insurers, for instance because of price comparison sites, can cause premiums to plummet. A possible consequence is that these companies don’t earn enough money to be able to pay out in the event of damage. This may create a perverse incentive to look for loopholes in the contracts. In other words, you need to find the middle ground. You want to offer a product that is fair for both parties. ”
Philip: “What Karin is demonstrating here is that ethical dilemmas are often also economic, social or organizational in nature.”
How do you deal with those complex dilemmas?
Philip: “In a very elementary way: by discussing them openly. By making your standards and values explicit. You can do this very systematically, and then work very systematically towards a solution. In the end, it’s a question of recognizing, analyzing and discussing a dilemma, and then working together on a targeted solution that also addresses the economic and social and all those other aspects.”
Are there protocols for that?
Philip: “Yes, but they are different for every industry and every issue. In many industries you have ethical guidelines or codes that provide a framework of reference. Those are still a fairly crude tool. In addition, there are methods for systematic ethical analysis, with specialist instruments per context.”
Karin: “Our industry has quite a few regulations already. Many of those have a legal basis. For example, before a new product can receive approval, we must demonstrate that we have made a balanced consideration of interests. There are tools for this: indicators you can use to weigh up the interests of all parties involved. And this is an evolving process: the more data we gather, the more important this will become. ”
What is the added value of Achmea’s collaboration with the university?
Philip: “Over the years, we have acquired a great deal of knowledge about issues such as big data and artificial intelligence and how to deal with them. We try to incorporate this knowledge into our training courses for the insurance industry and the tax authorities. People often think of privacy as an issue, but that is by no means the only ethical aspect. Justice is also a very important one. How do you avoid treating certain groups unjustly? In the Netherlands this is now very clearly the case with the Childcare Supplement Affair, for example.”
Karin: “As an insurer, we’re also addressing the issue of fraud. Our computer systems are looking for patterns that may indicate fraud. But if you search in a database, especially using artificial intelligence, you will always find something. That is why there must always be a human control step in the process. And you have to keep an eye on the human dimension. For example, we have an Unlucky Client procedure, for people who claim an above-average amount of damage. We look at each case individually: how is it possible that this person is claiming so much damage, and how can we help prevent this? This is a completely different approach than automatically assuming fraud.”
Philip: “I’m chuckling here because I myself was a multi-claimer for a while. I had a few consecutive cases of bad luck with houses and furniture, and then I also suffered damage due to the Enschede fireworks disaster. Anyway. Excesses such as the Childcare Supplement Affair…. Everything starts with awareness. People should systematically reflect on the question: what are we doing, and where can things go wrong?”
Philip, you bring knowledge to those companies. Do you also learn from them?
Philip: “Achmea is a very pleasant cooperation partner. They’ve already given the issues considerable thought, and collected many case studies. These are very useful for the company’s development, but also for our research. These cases give us unique insights into the issues at hand in the industry. We are constantly looking for this link with practice. We don't want to just produce beautiful theories, sitting in our ivory tower, but want to develop something that really benefits practice.”
Karin: “To us the advantage is that we are constantly forced to look outward, also across the boundaries of our industry.”
Philip: “In addition, this collaboration allows us to investigate how our basic concepts are challenged by new technologies. What exactly do we mean when we say ‘human’, ‘natural’, ‘privacy’, or ‘justice’? New technology can change our understanding of those concepts. Privacy really means something completely different now than it did a hundred years ago. Similarly, you can ask yourself whether the concept of ‘risk’ is also changing.”
Karin: “We recently had an interesting discussion about this. Shouldn't we offer cyber insurance for consumers? A product that offers consumers assistance when all their data is suddenly out in the open?”
Philip: “That’s a very interesting question. Fifty years ago we were still an industrial society, now we’re an information society. There are very different risks involved. The risks are less and less material, more and more informational. This calls for an entirely new ethical point of view.”
Karin: “At the same time: running risks is a timeless phenomenon. The degree of risk is also a matter of perception. There are fewer burglaries and car accidents now than a few decades ago, but new risks have taken their place.”
Still the general trend is that, thanks to big data, you can predict risks with increasing precision.
Karin: “That's right. So the question is how far you want to take this. Behavioral profiling is allowed, but if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with groups that are uninsurable, based on your data analysis. Again, that is where the human dimension comes into play.”
Philip: “Context, motivation, and complex cause-and-effect relationships: big data cannot deal with those. People will continue to have that responsibility. At the same time: people can be just as bad as machines – as was sadly illustrated by the Childcare Supplement Affair.”
Karin: “It remains a question of the human scale and solidarity. And one more thing: this conversation has mostly been about the dark side of big data and the ethical dilemmas. But let’s not forget the many positive sides to this technological development. Thanks to big data, we can offer our customers tailor-made solutions and help prevent damage.”