A Career in AI Ethics
Saayeli Mukherji ‘13 would not have her current job if it wasn’t for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
She was most recently a strategic manager to the COO at Elementum, a software-as-a-service startup in Silicon Valley, where she led their expansion into Latin America and managed teams in Asia.
However, that was not enough.
“I was at my last job a couple months ago, and I was thinking about where to go career-wise,” Mukherji said. “I was doing a really operational role and really enjoyed the fast pace of Silicon Valley. But I was thinking all of the things that I've enjoyed doing previously and what kept coming back to me was ethics research.”
Mukherji had spent her senior year at Santa Clara University as a Hackworth Fellow at the Ethics Center, interviewing SCU business school alumni about the ethical issues they encountered in the workplace. She contacted her former mentor for that project, David DeCosse, and expressed her interest in exploring opportunities that would combine technology and ethics. DeCosse connected her to Brian Green, the Center’s director of Technology Ethics, introduced her to the CEO of the Partnership on AI to Benefit People (PAI) and Society. From that initial contact, Mukherji secured a job expanding the partnership’s global partnership network.
“Saayeli is passionately committed to ethics, and we have talked about that a lot, both when she was an SCU student and in the years after that we were in touch.That really drove her interest in pursuing her Fulbright,” DeCosse said. After graduating from SCU, Mukherji was a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Duisenberg School of Finance in the Netherlands, where she studied the integration of ethics and business, particularly international legal and financial regulations.
“I know ethics has been a constant interest of hers in the different companies she's worked in since then. When I heard Saayeli was now working at the Partnership on AI, honestly my first thought was, perfect. Absolutely perfect for PAI.”
PAI is a technology industry organization focused on establishing best practices and educating the public on artificial intelligence systems. The more than 80 members come from 13 countries and include technology companies, civil society representatives, and academic and research institutions such as the Ethics Center.
According to Green, PAI is “lots of organizations from all around the world trying to promote a conversation on AI to make sure the tech is being steered in the right direction rather than the wrong direction.”
Mukherji agrees. “Our whole premise is to make these conversations happen over and over again until we have a better sense of how to make AI a little more inclusive and ethical.”
As part of her fellowship with the Center, Mukherji sought to answer what ethical issues were faced by recent graduates in their careers one to five years out of Santa Clara. She collected case studies from SCU alumni working in the business world, and her efforts became part of "The Silicon Valley Business Ethics Dialogue," a project of the Center’s Hackworth Fellows in Business Ethics. Mukherji teamed up with three other fellows from the business school and completed 20 case studies, ranging in topics from gender discrimination to cultural barriers in the workplace.
According to DeCosse, ethics cases had been successfully done by preceding Hackworth fellows in different disciplines, but this was the first time they were written by students in a business context.
“The team got real-time ethics cases from people working out in the Valley, ” DeCosse said. “We had really excellent conversations. It was interesting hearing the four fellows dissect the substance of the case.”
According to Mukherji, a lot of case studies she focused on had to do with her experience with finance and understanding the ethics behind her interest. However, she said her favorite piece was co-written with Fellow Noah Rickling regarding a global issue: the 2012 Bangladesh factory fire. They debated whether it was the government's responsibility to bring factories up to date, or if more should be done by multinational corporations to ensure the safety of their supply chain employees.
According to Mukherji, the most interesting part of writing the piece was getting to know Rickling, as the two came from very different backgrounds. She was partly raised in India and said she had more exposure to minimum-wage workers than Rickling, who grew up in San Diego.
“It spoke to so many crucial issues in terms of ethics and the global economy,” DeCosse said. “They did an excellent job on that case and pieced it out together.