Is being (purely) data driven unethical in a world of AI?

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The possibility of creating thinking machines raises many ethical issues. If machines running on AI are not conscious, will they behave ethically?

I was reading the book by Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, and it concluded with the view that in the modern world of AI, intelligence has decoupled from consciousness. Consciousness in this respect refers a complex subject which comes down to the essence of being human and is subject to much debate in Psychology and Science (2,3) and goes beyond being aware and responsive to one’s surroundings. To have a conscience and being aware of right from wrong derives from being conscious.

We are creating machines that can process algorithms on vast amounts of data in a manner that for some scenarios can better human intelligence. The growing investment in AI and the exponential growth of compute power means that areas where machines can better humans is growing rapidly.

At the same time, we in our daily lives are being encouraged to be data driven. This connection ranges from the small nudges of advertising that drive our behaviour on line to our willingness to trust the data in all aspects of life, such as healthcare diagnosis. We no longer read maps rather we trust the data the machine is telling us.

This can be a good thing in many respects, but at the same time, there is an active debate around ‘fake news’ and other data sources trying to lead us astray. There is then a similar debate around the ethics of the AI that is controlling it.

What do we mean by ethical behaviour? Ethical is defined in terms of moral principles and moral principles in turn relate to descriptions such as honest, virtuous and good. Ultimately these relate to societal norms and as such to how one person’s behaviour impacts the others around them. To reflect on and be aware of how one impacts the feelings of those around them, I would argue that, you need to be conscious and be aware of your environment.

If machines running AI are not conscious, can they behave ethically? In our new world of unconscious data driven machines are we forgoing the opportunity to ensure ethical behaviour in the future.

As we all walk down the street being driven by the data and nudges on our phone does this mean we are opening ourselves as individuals and as a society to the erosion (and eventual destruction) of our ethics?

  1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker; First edition (8 Sept. 2016)

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