“Ethics is just doing the right thing, but what is the right thing?”: AI ethics in the energy sector

“Ethics is just doing the right thing, but what is the right thing?”: AI ethics in the energy sector

Dr Kathryn Stamp, Research Fellow, Centre for Computational Science and Mathematical Modelling and Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University
Dr Euan Morris, Research Associate, Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, University of Strathclyde

30 March 2022

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now a prominent feature of everyday life, from smart phones to social media to chatbots, and industries are accelerating AI use to improve flexibility and efficiency of their work, but what are the ethical implications of such a move for the energy sector? Interest in the field of AI and ethics has grown exponentially in the past half decade.

With events such as the 2021 Reith Lectures, presented by Professor Stuart Russell bringing discussions around AI ethics to a broader audience, it is more important than ever to consider the ethical implications of AI use for the energy sector, especially given the shift towards greater digitisation.

EnergyREV researchers have explored current AI practice and understanding of ethics through discussion with energy sector workers and academics, seeking to answer the research question: How is ethics understood and applied in AI within the UK energy data landscape? 

To address this question, we held several interviews and focus groups to discuss:

  • how AI use has penetrated the energy sector?
  • how ethics is understood by those working in the sector? and
  • what the perceived challenges of implementing greater AI use in the future are?

Our findings, some of which are presented below, demonstrate that this is a significant and pressing topic, one that encourages us to examine current behaviours and norms to think about how these might impact on the technological implementations of the future.

Defining ethics

We found that when it comes to defining ethics, everyone has their own view. This is sometimes informed by philosophical understanding of belief systems or by social engagement and experience of the world. Subsequently, this has led to a wealth of definitions, which makes classifying and ‘pinning down’ the details of ethics very complicated. However, this slipperiness is a unique feature of ethics and, because it is not simply ‘black and white’, there is space for debate and discussion, for justification and negotiation. Studying ethics, as opposed to studying laws or regulations, therefore, is exciting as well as complicated.

What is AI?

Alongside a multitude of ethical definitions is confusion over what is classed as AI. Is machine learning AI? Are advanced data analysis techniques? Will what we call AI today still be called AI in the future? There is a need to clarify what AI is, and what it may become, as the digitalisation of the energy sector moves ever forward to ensure all aspects of AI are considered ethically.

Ethics as an enabler

Ethics and ethical thinking can sometimes be viewed as a ‘stop sign’ preventing innovative and risky ideas being realised, a form of ethical policing. However, our findings demonstrate that ‘ethical scaffolding’ and space to consider the ethical implications of plans could lead to more innovation and impact in the sector, with many of our participants expressing gratitude at being offered the opportunity to debate a topic that does not consciously feature in their day-to-day thinking but would benefit their work to do so.

Monitoring ethics

Another prominent feature of our discussions were around current monitoring practices and to what extent regulations and legislations do (or do not) already cover ethics. While regulations have clear guidelines and consequences for failure to adhere to their principles, ethics are more fluid, with consequences are not always clear and are often negotiable. Therefore, this research highlights how a flexible and dynamic ethical structure could lead to a more adaptable and resilient approach to AI design, implementation, and monitoring.

Take some time to consider how you might define ethics and how you feel it impacts on your work. How would you like to see ethical AI implemented in the UK energy sector moving forward?

The full briefing paper entitled ‘The Practice of AI and Ethics in Energy Transition Futures’ will be published on the Energy REV website shortly.