In this industry, it’s a tired old cliche to say that we’re building the future. But that’s true now more than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The proliferation of personal computers, laptops, and cell phones has changed our lives, but by replacing or augmenting systems that were already in place. Email supplanted the post office; online shopping replaced the local department store; digital cameras and photo sharing sites such as Flickr pushed out film and bulky, hard-to-share photo albums. AI presents the possibility of changes that are fundamentally more radical: changes in how we work, how we interact with each other, how we police and govern ourselves.
Fear of a mythical “evil AI” derived from reading too much sci-fi won’t help. But we do need to ensure that AI works for us rather than against us; we need to think ethically about the systems that we’re building. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, writes:
What are our values? And what do we want our values to be? Nadella is deeply right in focusing on discussion. Ethics is about having an intelligent discussion, not about answers, as such—it’s about having the tools to think carefully about real-world actions and their effects, not about prescribing what to do in any situation. Discussion leads to values that inform decision-making and action.
The word “ethics” comes from “ethos,” which means character: what kind of a person you are. “Morals” comes from “mores,” which basically means customs and traditions. If you want rules that tell you what to do in any situation, that’s what customs are for. If you want to be the kind of person who executes good judgment in difficult situations, that’s ethics. Doing what someone tells you is easy. Exercising good judgement in difficult situations is a much tougher standard.
Exercising good judgement is hard, in part, because we like to believe that a right answer has no bad consequences; but that’s not the kind of world we have. We’ve damaged our sensibilities with medical pamphlets that talk about effects and side effects. There are no side effects; there are just effects, some of which you might not want. All actions have effects. The only question is whether the negative effects outweigh the positive ones. That’s a question that doesn’t have the same answer every time, and doesn’t have to have the same answer for every person. And doing nothing because thinking about the effects makes us uncomfortable is, in fact, doing something.
The effects of most important decisions aren’t reversible. You can’t undo them. The myth of Pandora’s box is right: once the box is opened, you can’t put the stuff that comes out back inside. But the myth is right in another way: opening the box is inevitable. It will always be opened; if not by you, by someone else. Therefore, a simple “we shouldn’t do this” argument is always dangerous, because someone will inevitably do it, for any possible “this.” You may personally decide not to work on a project, but any ethics that assumes people will stay away from forbidden knowledge is a failure. It’s far more important to think about what happens after the box has been opened. If we’re afraid to do so, we will be the victims of whoever eventually opens the box.
Finally, ethics is about exercising judgement in real-world situations, not contrived situations and hypotheticals. Hypothetical situations are of very limited use, if not actually harmful. Decisions in the real world are always more complex and nuanced. I’m completely uninterested in whether a self-driving car should run over the grandmothers or the babies. An autonomous vehicle that can choose which pedestrian to kill surely has enough control to avoid the accident altogether. The real issue isn’t who to kill, where either option forces you into unacceptable positions about the value of human lives, but how to prevent accidents in the first place. Above all, ethics must be realistic, and in our real world, bad things happen.