When is it morally just to use artificial intelligence? A new class equips MBA students with the tools to identify the limitations of AI and how to make ethical decisions about the technology.

New Merage School class deals with the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence

August 24, 2022 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been used to make our lives easier in a variety of ways. Self-driving cars, smart thermostats, and virtual smartphone assistants are all products of machine learning.

But, AI has also been used to collect sensitive personal information and can perpetuate racial and economic inequities. Given that the technology can be misused, it’s important for current and future business leaders to understand the ramifications of AI, understand its limitations, and make ethical decisions about its use.

This summer, the Paul Merage School of Business is offering a new MBA class that deals with the ethics of artificial intelligence. The class is being led by Professor Masheika Allgood, an expert in law and technology who founded AllAI Consulting, LLC in Sunnyvale and a board member of the Foundation for Best Practices in Machine Learning.

“We are so happy to have Professor Allgood join us and welcome her unique expertise which is a perfect fit with the Merage School’s focus on digital innovation,” Merage School Dean Ian Williamson said. “This class is really the first of its kind at the school and it’s absolutely essential that our students understand the technical, economic and social complexities of artificial intelligence.”

Professor Allgood approached Dean Williamson with the idea for a program regarding the ethics of artificial intelligence after a friend recommended that they meet. Professor Allgood’s background seemed like a good fit considering the school’s focus on digital innovation.

The topic provoked a great deal of interest on the campus, as 67 students registered for the class. Professor Allgood initially believed that only 30 students would possibly sign up for the complex subject, but it was clear that there is a widespread interest in understanding the ins and outs of AI.

Becoming an educator was a major accomplishment for Professor Allgood. Years ago, her brother reminded her that she has wanted to teach at a university since she was a teenager. She was driven by that vision when she moved to California in 2014, but for years she’d forgotten her initial goal as she pursued an education in law and technology. When Dean Williamson asked her to teach at UC Irvine, she remembered her dream.

“My goal was to always be a professor and I somehow forgot that along the way,” she said.

Professor Allgood is excited to be back in a classroom, a comfortable environment for somebody with four degrees. She’s also enjoyed her students’ interest in the content of the course. As she has been engaging with her class, she’s realized that the “topic is clearly something that they are interested in, and they want to dive deeper into.”

Professor Allgood’s class delves into the capabilities and limitations of artificial intelligence. As her students consider utilizing AI, she wants them to question whether the technology is necessary for solving whatever problem they are attempting to fix. Artificial intelligence is a very alluring form of technology that has been heavily covered by media, but currently has limited application for most businesses.

“Professor Allgood is providing students with the necessary tools to fully consider the limitations of a form of technology that will be in our future, and our actions can help shape what that future will look like,” said Yuhai Xuan, Dean's Professor of Finance and Associate Dean of Masters Programs at the Merage School. “It’s great to know that our students will be equipped to help guide that future.”

One of the major projects in the class requires students to pitch an AI product. In deciding on a product to pitch, students are encouraged to consider a business problem or opportunity that they would like to address and whether AI is the most effective solution. Students must also ensure that the product will be viable considering limitations on the technology that are being advocated for through activist movements and considered by regulatory bodies.

“We need to think critically about how to best innovate around the limitations of AI,” she said. “We need to see beyond the hype of AI in the media and ask the real questions to determine if AI is the right tool to get you the outcome that you’re looking for.”

Professor Allgood is hoping to instill a sense of “practical morality” in her students so that they question the use of AI in business. In her view, the world of artificial intelligence has been like the “Wild West” which has had a negative impact on a lot of people. Business leaders need to utilize more forethought before using the technology. She believes that business decisions have almost exclusively been based on what maximizes shareholder value, but she wants her students to factor in the societal impact of their decisions.

“I’d like for this class to encourage us to think about others and the world around us when building things,” she said.

Professor Allgood voiced concerns on how artificial intelligence can be exploitive. For instance, mining the data of millions of people can be viewed in a negative light, considering that those people do not benefit from the siphoning of their information. This has led to social movements, like the push for data sovereignty, which requires that data should be regulated by the law of the government in which the data is stored.

“So, it's kind of colonial in that we mine data, a natural resource, from individuals, and we create value higher up the chain and provide little to no value for the people who we took the data from,” she said.

The technology is also colonialist in that it forces beliefs and behaviors of the majority onto the minority, she said. Artificial intelligence finds the most prominent patterns, and adapts to those behaviors, which penalizes individuals who do not behave in the same way as the majority group(s). According to the American Civil Liberties Union, AI has adapted historical discriminatory practices in perpetuating housing discrimination and hiring and financial lending discrimination. 

“The movement for fairness and equity is against this whole idea of generalization,” she said.

Largely informed by the media misrepresenting artificial intelligence, most may believe that AI is here to stay and will only grow in the future. However, Professor Allgood points to the phenomenon of AI Winter to illustrate that it has been a very boom or bust technology and its future will depend on how businesses utilize it. Current pushes for more regulation and other social movements could also impact the future of AI.

Considering her background in both law and technology, Professor Allgood believes that regulation is an essential tool for reigning in destructive AI methods and uninformed or amoral business leaders who aren’t thinking about the negative consequences of AI.

Traditionally, it is believed in the business world that regulations hamper creativity. But Professor Allgood believes that constraints drive innovation.

“We don’t really know this technology in the way that you would think we do, and we’ve allowed it to proliferate in the world,” she said. “Regulations are coming, and we need to be ready.”