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Will advances in Artificial Intelligence be used for good or evil?

For the past several months we have been immersed in the global debate about the impacts Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will have on us as individuals, members of society and as global citizens. Our focus has been on identifying the many ethical impacts of AI applications which are simply too numerous to discuss here but will be tackled in future blogs.

As our research deepened, we became increasingly alarmed at the absence of any widespread public debate on what is being called our imminent “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Media coverage seems to be the preserve of “Tech writers” rather than social demographers. How can we, as citizens, workers and parents, prepare ourselves for the inevitable consequences of AI and machine learning advances if the inevitable transformations and consequences of an AI world is being decided elsewhere

Machine learning technological advances are moving faster than government regulators or our social norms can keep up with. The social as well as the economic consequences are already predicted to be so far reaching that our social world as we know it, may within the next 5 years, cease to exist and with that, how we currently define how humans relate, work, relax, find our sense of purpose and build a sense of personal identity.

For the first time in humankind’s evolution, human labour will be uncoupled from economic productivity. The emerging workplace will be one that is characterised by fewer humans working alongside robotic and machine learning applications. The latest report from the OECD, predicts that there will be 66 million job losses due to automation from AI and it is likely these losses will predominately impact the young and the unskilled. How will this impact our social stability?

Along with the unquestioned social, medical and workplace benefits that AI and machine learning has brought, so too has it been accompanied by increasing concerns and fears. These include, alarm about political interference in national elections from chatbots; algorithms with built-in bias that perpetuate stereotypes and gender specific prejudices; personal privacy invasions arising from increasing electronic surveillance; personal data security breaches exposing us to manipulation; fear around ongoing employability; possibilities of greater polarisations of the haves and the have nots if the benefits from AI are not fairly distributed; and vulnerability to cybercrime and cyber harassment.

Of pressing social concern, is the absence of any agreed global regulatory regime to set boundaries and manage the, yet unpredictable and perhaps negative, impacts on societies from the use of AI and machine learning.

As we are exposed to more and more decisions that directly impact our welfare including recruitment and promotions; social services access, medical diagnoses, judicial decisions, assessment of credit worthiness and insurance risks, should we not be more afraid that an algorithm with a possible encoded bias or that lacks the empathy needed to consider our wider social context, is making these decisions?

The use of AI in guiding deployment of weapons of war is also a matter of grave concern. Many people fear AI and machine learning for what it does not have – it does not have essential human traits including empathy and respect for the innate dignity of humans or notions of duty of care or self- sacrifice in the service of others. It does not have wisdom, insight and compassion – rather is has possible questionable data being sifted and sorted by algorithms with little transparency.

For the moment, it is the TechTitans – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter – that are leading the charge on AI not governments. Vital ethical concerns about whose interests are being served by AI investment and whose role it is to protect “the common good” remain unanswered.

These are all complex and important questions arising from the ever-advancing march of machine learning breakthrough and no lives will remain untouched by them. Therefore, everyone needs to become more aware of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to shape their personal worlds.

Since AI isn’t one thing but different things in different areas, the risks and considerations will be very different in different societal spheres. Advances in AI need to be matched with similar advances in public and media debate; public policy and industry regulatory regimes.

The World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the IEEEAI Now, The Partnership on AIFuture of Life, and  AI for Good, have all released sets of principles that might guide AI ongoing advances but every citizen has a part to play in ensuring that we are informed and contributing to the ongoing global debate.

Our biggest ethical challenge is to ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution serves humankind and learns from our past mistakes to ensure societal progress in tandem with technological advances. Get involved. Have your say. Intergenerational ethics demands it.

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