The Ethics of Finance and Innovation is a conversation with thought leader Professor Wolfgang Achtner about the use of Big Data, the Future of Finance, what AI means for the concept of Free Will, and why Blockchain may hold the key to an essential problem of the banking industry.
Sometimes it feels the world is spinning always faster and maybe it is: take the succession of financial scandals following the Financial Crisis of 2007/2008, or how technological innovation changes the world we live in rapidly. While we might get lost in the daily race to create a better financial system and build technology that makes our lives easier and safer, it can be difficult to consider fundamental questions that should steer our actions. Professor Wolfgang Achtner studied theology and mathematics, two subjects that sometimes seem to be at odds with each other. However, it puts him in a unique position to evaluate the questions of our time from different angles and gives him a key role as an ambassador for the dialogue between, science, ethics and religion.
I spoke to him about the use of Big Data, the Future of Finance, what AI means for the concept of Free Will, and why Blockchain may hold the key to an essential problem of the banking industry.
Stork, Babies and the Value of Big Data
When I first met Prof. Achtner at a congress in Italy, he told the audience about the value of Big Data and the importance of coming to the right conclusions. Using a simple example, he explained how Big Data may be used to proof almost anything, while the value of such evidence may be very limited. His example focused on the question whether it is possible to use data to confirm that storchs actually do deliver babys. While most of us will very confidently deny this, data actually indicates differently. Comparing the numbers of both storks and new-borns between urban and rural areas, the latter shows significantly higher numbers in both numbers in both categories. Hence, one could now draw the conclusion that their might actually be a connection stork and babies based on data. Achtner doesn’t want to prove that we should reconsider the common understanding of reproduction, of course. He rather wants to point out that correlation doesn’t mean causality, i.e. the relationship between a cause and its effect. It’s a simple story and you might say that, obviously, we have to bear such things in mind when considering the value of data, but the key message is actually a different one: it is that of the need to put things into question instead of simply accepting them for a fact, to pause once in a while and consider the ramifications of developments.
The loss of privacy
Remaining at the subject of Big Data, Prof. Achtner outlines how step by step the key problems from an ethical perspective: Beginning with a questionable approach towards the gathering of data, for instance, as part of smartphone applications that collect data without the consent of their user’s or, obtaining it in dubious ways through endless terms and conditions. This leads to the eradication of privacy and eventually the abolition of free will. He connects this problem with another tool, that of big nudging, i.e. prompting people to modify their behaviour in a predictable way without coercing them, forbidding actions, or changing consequences. An example for nudging to achieve better results is improving the availability and visibility of litter bins instead of simply putting up signs or warning of fines. Statistics show that this approach proves more successful to clean up streets. ? An example of Big Nudging in Finance is the incentive to save for retirement, which in itself isn’t such a bad thing considering that many people in developed countries have not done enough when it comes to financial planning. Most studies show that where employers automatically enroll new staff in company pension schemes the situation in respect of retirement planning improves. Critics say however that one-off financial nudges may actually backfire as it doesn’t necessary educate savers sufficiently to consider retirement planning properly and give them a false sense of doing enough by being enrolled in the company scheme. A similar discussion can be found in the field of robo-advisory and gamification where nudging might work to help investors make better decisions. It is a double-edged sword, but regardless of how someone things about it, there should be at least a discussion about it, would be Achtner conclusion.
When we talked about this in terms of the financial services industry, it actually led us to discussing an underlying problem the sector has been struggling for some time: the loss of trust. Prof. Achtner underlined, that in his opinion the basis for cooperation in particular in banking is trust. For trust to form, historically the personal relationship was very important. Bankers would know the people they dealt with very well because they not only had a professional relationship but often a private one, too. At the same time, customers would know their banks better because they knew the people behind the institution. This model is more and more eroding though. While it may be difficult to maintain or even claim back some of it in times of digitalisation – and Achtner stresses that banks should focus on the personal relationship as well as focus on financing the local economy rather than participate in dubious speculations at the other side of the globe – he proposes a model that represent the internal and external trust perception of a financial institution. Similar to other industries that have been disrupted by review platforms, .e.g. hotels and restaurant, it would consist on one hand of a public evaluation based on certain criteria like customer service or perceived credit worthiness. On the other hand, the assessment of these aspects by a bank’s employees might in combination with the external view create a trust index that could be a helpful early-warning system. To underline his point, he cited the situation at Deutsche Bank as an example: transformed from a solid institution into an international investment bank that neglected its core business, its employees according to him long knew that things weren’t as rosy as it seemed on the outside.
The trust crisis and blockchain technology
The loss of trust may also be a reason for the popularity of blockchain technology. While there are other aspects that contribute to that, too, a technology that propagates complete transparency of transactions is all the more appealing since it counters directly the issue of a lack of trust. Achtner cited another example that underpinned the value of trust in relation to blockchain technology, but also in general: when Volkswagen recently tried to regain the confidence of the market after its emission scandal, it pointed heavily on being perceived as conscious of its guilt and humble. At this point, however the damage done, which makes it all the more important consider the consequences of our actions on the reputation and the long term goals of a company rather than focusing on short term profits even if a system may encourage it. It’s a fitting analogy to the financial industry and while it may be difficult uphold, it should nonetheless be what we strive for.
Free Will and Artificial Intelligence
The importance of confronting the impact and consequences of innovation is for Prof. Achtner also of great importance with respect to Artificial Intelligence and the transfer of control from man to machine. While he is a great supporter of the concept of free will. It is necessary to accept that because of the neuronal plasticity of the human brain different grades of this freedom exist. This freedom, however, according to Achtner is not a given, predetermined condition, but rather a livelong process that requires continuous work. Depending on the activity, the brain adapts and the degree of freedom changes accordingly. For that reason, humans remain and must remain responsible for their actions and cannot use the delegating of control as an excuse. We rather should be aware of this plasticity that distinguishes the human brain and to that effect conduct a critical analysis regarding the consequences of our actions in this context.
Wolfgang Achtner is renowned thought leader and international speaker on science, ethics and religion. He is a professor at the University of Giessen and the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt on science-theology. He is the founder and director of the “Transscientia Institute for Interdisciplinary Science Development, Philosophy and Religion” (www.transscientia.de) and has written and contributed to many publications that focus on this and related subjects.