Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a rather generic term that encompasses an entire field of study. We do tend to think of AI as one singular type of technology, but that is a mistake. AI is as complex as the study of microbiology and has as many theories and laws and possibly more principles. One such principle is that of the ethical boundaries surrounding this rather misunderstood technological advancement.
We don’t hear a lot about ethics these days. We hear about equality, and fairness, and honesty. All behaviors that are imposed upon us by society. But we don’t hear much about ethics. Ethics describes our expectations of ourselves in terms of right and wrong behaviors. Ethical standards are not law, although under certain circumstances an ethical boundary can become law. The boundaries will vary between entities and as a result, ethical boundaries that are captured into the practice of law tend to be controversial and become legal grey areas prone to debate. Ethics can embrace both our personal boundaries and societal boundaries. In one culture it may be unethical to marry or to consume alcohol under a certain age, in others, not so much. Whether or not these boundaries are captured in law, they remain controversial with workarounds based on other practices.
We talk about work ethics. But we really do not embrace ethics in the academic sense. Those deep discussions that embody not just one generation, but for generations throughout history. Discussions had into the night on a soft comfy sofa sipping liqueurs from crystal tumblers. Oh, I do miss university! Our capacity to solve all the world’s problems while being comfortably protected from the fallout. Why can’t the real world just be a microcosm of university? The reason is because theory and practice are two very different things. Much like the difference between the theory of ethics, and the reality that we live each day.
As human animals, we sell ourselves to our employers and then buy back the products and services that our labor is used to produce. In the industrial world, we are forced into this behavior in order to be able to survive. With the increased knowledge and investment surrounding AI, the longer-term hope is for humankind to be less slave-centric and more holistic. Let’s train the machines to do all the menial tasks and we, therefore, can spend our time creating a sense of community and raising our children and caring for our families. That is the dream and AI is the medium to theoretically take us there. In business terms, this is a very large organizational change management project. The number one rule of any organizational change project is that messaging must come very early in the project from the highest possible leadership. Let’s not also forget that we have dug ourselves into a rather deep hole based on profit maximization. What are the ethical boundaries of maximizing profit by a select few rather than embracing society as a whole and leveraging the technological advances of AI? Let’s dig deeper.
Relationship between ethical behavior and profit maximization
AI is already gainfully employed in many capacities. Among its uses, we can witness its effectiveness in marketing and advertising. Our location is tracked, and we are fed advertising based on our location along with data captured from our previous searches and purchases. This is not the AI we predicted as a means to remove ourselves from the slavery of work. This AI is a means to retail and corporate profit maximization, and our behavior has changed to embrace this new, and legally acceptable, culture of consumer manipulation. The ethical question is around the needs and greed of a few outweighing the needs of the many. Both Charles Dickens and Leonard Nimoy would have strong opinions on this ethical debate.
Ethics, AI, and social interaction
One might argue that human behavior is predictable. If that is the case, AI should only be a matter of programming the known predictable behavior and the human factor can be removed. But it is not that simple. AI is programmed to make responses based upon predictable behavior. This could potentially mean that, should AI be given the authority to make decisions, the response or advantage that is given to one recipient will potentially not be the same as that given to another. If we indeed are driving in the direction of AI as our medium so that we are free from the slavery of work, the result could mean that if we survive better and accept fewer handouts from society, we will be less entitled to the spoils of our new society in the future as a result of AI decision making. In this scenario, the weak shall indeed inherit the earth.
Are we already compliant in a complaint-based world?
Government entities cannot solve all community problems. The means they have chosen to compensate for this shortcoming is to, rather than proactively deal with what society deems important, wait until there is a complaint and to utilize available resources to deal with that complaint. If we delve into the study of psychology, we find exploratory research into the thresholds of complaining. Complainers can fall into two categories, chronic complainers and venting complainers. Neither of these categories is focused on the greater societal good. Is it ethical for a government entity to spend the majority of time and resources on addressing the complaints of a self-appointed select few? Let’s fast forward to government decisions driven by AI. If the historical feed is based on an already flawed system, what is the ethical impact to those who conform to the resulting enforcement? Will conformists become the only law-abiding citizens while serial complainers continue to enjoy the fruits of their ill-conceived efforts?
Human rights for nonhumans?
The current progress of AI has achieved a level whereby the technology has the ability to “learn.” We have successfully programmed robots to adjust their answers based on the responses and behaviors of their human subjects. The question at hand is, does the ability to learn and to adjust one’s behavior thereby mean that a robot has a conscious mind and is deserving of the same rights and privileges as its human counterparts? The ethical argument being that the presence of consciousness is deserving of a level of respect and the assignment of rights. While the battle continues to achieve a level of rights for non-human animals, this ethical debate seems to be turning into more of an avenue for corporate entities to achieve ownership of AI technology to ensure a revenue stream.
The debate will get hotter
Ethical debates around the implementation of AI are not hard to find. As a culture, the dream is to use the monetary gains of a community to invest in an AI culture that can provide the labor required and thereby free the human race from our self-imposed life of slavery. But while we were busy developing the required technology, we also entered an era of corporate giants with rather selfish goals. While there is no argument about the growth and development of the technology of AI, it is no longer the savior of freedom, but rather a next level of consumer manipulation and behavior modification. The ethical arguments are overwhelming and a bit scary. The behavior modifications that our culture has accepted have replaced our ability to question, debate, and identify our own ethical boundaries, with words like fairness and equality. We accept them in an effort to support the greater good, but we can no longer identify what it is that we will gain by the current corporate definition of the greater good.
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