How to Find an AI Ethicist for Your Startup

Responsible innovation is likely to be one of the hottest careers of the near future. But before it can catch on, we need to build a pipeline to get people into the field.

Written by David Ryan Polgar
Published on Aug. 18, 2020
How to Find an AI Ethicist for Your Startup
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A lot of people today want to be data scientists. But will people want to be AI ethicists, directors of responsible innovation, or social trust specialists tomorrow? Right now, your company would have an easier time hiring a data scientist.

Data science is the third most desirable career in the United States in 2020, according to Glassdoor. The median base salary for a data scientist is over six figures, and countless articles show how the demand for data scientists in our increasingly data-driven society is outstripping the supply. Andrew Flowers, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, wrote last year that “[m]ore employers than ever are looking to hire these skilled digital data jockeys.”

In 2007, there were zero data scientists.

Although there were certainly people before 2008 who were working as what we would now call data scientists, the professional title wasn’t in common use until DJ Patil and Jeff Hammerbacher popularized it in 2008. Later, their widely discussed article in the Harvard Business Review boldly announced the profession’s arrival with the title “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” At this point, data science was becoming a discrete profession with its own identity in the tech industry.


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In the tech industry, which is marked by its fast-paced changes, you can easily hear a new-ish title so frequently that you forget it hasn’t been around forever. In truth, careers don’t exist until employers, individuals, and educators define a necessary slate of skills and then develop language to describe that skillset. And during times of upheaval and disruption, new careers are often reverse-engineered from the work done by individuals who possess a range of skills that solved a relatively new problem. People were already working as data scientists and then they got named “data scientists.” This inspired the next generation of data scientists, gave more clarity to the tech industry about roles they needed to hire for, and prompted educators to develop courses for this new field.

The need for data scientists came from a clear pain point in the market. As Patil and Hammerbacher pointed out in 2012, data scientists’ “sudden appearance on the business scene reflects the fact that companies are now wrestling with information that comes in varieties and volumes never encountered before.” The changing circumstances and growing needs prompted the emergence of a new career title.

Today, companies are wrestling with products and platforms that have a profound impact on our civil liberties, how we communicate, and even democracy at large. The growing public recognition of the downstream effects of technology, along with an increasing demand that tech companies take greater responsibility for any “unintended consequences” and negative externalities, has led to a host of new job titles aimed at responsible innovation. Tech companies are beginning to hire for new roles with non-traditional skills and higher education is starting to adapt to better meet the qualifications necessary for these emerging careers.

Surveying the responsible innovation landscape, major companies currently have job titles for all of the following:

  • AI ethicist (IBM)
  • Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer (Salesforce)
  • Data Privacy and Ethics Lead (Qantas)
  • Emerging Risk Analyst - Trust & Safety (TikTok)
  • Ethical AI Lead (Google)
  • Chief AI Ethics Officer (US Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force)
  • Activation Lead / Ethics & Society (Microsoft)
  • Director of Responsible Innovation & Responsible Innovation Manager (Facebook)
  • Social Trust Specialist (Apple)
  • Responsible AI Specialist (H&M Group)
  • Manager, Rule of Law and Responsible Tech (Microsoft)
  • Staff Product Manager - Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency and Accountability (Twitter)
  • Principal, Responsible Innovation + Data Ethics (Accenture)
  • Ethical AI Practice Architect

Career nomenclature matters. It signifies to individuals that they can pursue and perhaps even build a new career, employers can better target these candidates with a desired skill set, and the education industry can start developing courses, certifications, and degree programs aligned with a newly minted field. The process is cyclical: As more employers search for a certain skill set, more people will go out and acquire those very skills.

Companies looking to hire people for these new responsible innovation roles are scanning titles and job descriptions at their competitors in order to help guide their recruitment process. In order to attract the right candidate, the company needs to first know what to call the position. At the same time, the newness of the space means that terms and titles are fluid and subject to alteration. Companies, potential candidates for these new responsible innovation roles, and educators are looking to see what sticks. In other words, we are in the midst of a rapid evolution of just what those roles entail and what are appropriate titles for those responsibilities.

The titles listed above share some commonalities: The ideal candidate tends to be someone comfortable working with both engineers and executives, typically has an advanced degree, and is capable of cross-functional work regarding ethics, privacy, safety, and security. These positions also place a premium on cross-sector experience and the ability to consult with policy, legal, product, and user research. New programs, such as CertNexus’ recently announced Certified Ethical Emerging Technologist training, are “designed for individuals seeking to demonstrate a vendor neutral, cross-industry, and multidisciplinary understanding of applied technology ethics that will enable them to navigate the processes by which ethical integrity may be upheld within emerging data-driven technology fields.” Similar to the push to promote STEAM and not just STEM, these new responsible innovation roles put a premium on a multidisciplinary background and cross-industry experience.

Related ReadingA Day in the Life of a Tech Ethicist


The Responsible Innovation Pipeline Problem

Last year, I met with an individual who was recently hired as a data ethics officer for a startup. Given the relatively unique job title, I asked him how his company went about determining the job description and qualifications that this role needed. Since the startup was in relatively uncharted territory with hiring for this job, they lacked a standard template for what it should require of a candidate. But they certainly knew that any company dealing with valuable and sensitive data needed to have a more thoughtful process regarding its use, governance, and oversight. They knew that they needed someone in this new role, but they didn’t have the benefit of people clearly marked and educated for the position.

Likewise, the area of trust and safety is exploding for social media companies aiming to tamp down online harassment, misinformation, deepfakes, feelings of loneliness, and more. But right now no clear career path exists for getting into this field.

As someone who is heavily involved in the responsible tech ecosystem across industry, academia, and civil society, I routinely hear from both individuals looking to carve a career in this new space and companies looking to hire people for these new job titles. But since the field is so new, people who may be an ideal responsible AI specialist or ethical AI practice architect are often either unaware of these positions or unsure about how to break into these roles. As a result, companies looking to hire for these new roles have a pipeline problem: no clear system exists for pinpointing individuals with the desired skills to tackle the pressing problems that tech companies are grappling with.

In other words, the responsible innovation ecosystem needs to create a pipeline similar to how the coining the job title of “data scientist” in 2008 solidified the career. Once the term “data scientist” was in common usage, the public understood that this was a possible career, industry had more uniformity in the skills the job required, and educators began developing the necessary curricula to match the growing demand from the public and tech industry.

Responsible innovation may be the sexiest job of the 21st century. But first we need to ensure that we have a responsible innovation pipeline, and that requires clearly defining what these new roles entail.


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