Top 9 ethical issues in artificial intelligence

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8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?

The reason humans are on top of the food chain is not down to sharp teeth or strong muscles. Human dominance is almost entirely due to our ingenuity and intelligence. We can get the better of bigger, faster, stronger animals because we can create and use tools to control them: both physical tools such as cages and weapons, and cognitive tools like training and conditioning.

This poses a serious question about artificial intelligence: will it, one day, have the same advantage over us? We can’t rely on just “pulling the plug” either, because a sufficiently advanced machine may anticipate this move and defend itself. This is what some call the “singularity”: the point in time when human beings are no longer the most intelligent beings on earth.

9. Robot rights. How do we define the humane treatment of AI?

While neuroscientists are still working on unlocking the secrets of conscious experience, we understand more about the basic mechanisms of reward and aversion. We share these mechanisms with even simple animals. In a way, we are building similar mechanisms of reward and aversion in systems of artificial intelligence. For example, reinforcement learning is similar to training a dog: improved performance is reinforced with a virtual reward.

Right now, these systems are fairly superficial, but they are becoming more complex and life-like. Could we consider a system to be suffering when its reward functions give it negative input? What’s more, so-called genetic algorithms work by creating many instances of a system at once, of which only the most successful “survive” and combine to form the next generation of instances. This happens over many generations and is a way of improving a system. The unsuccessful instances are deleted. At what point might we consider genetic algorithms a form of mass murder?

Once we consider machines as entities that can perceive, feel and act, it’s not a huge leap to ponder their legal status. Should they be treated like animals of comparable intelligence? Will we consider the suffering of “feeling” machines?

Some ethical questions are about mitigating suffering, some about risking negative outcomes. While we consider these risks, we should also keep in mind that, on the whole, this technological progress means better lives for everyone. Artificial intelligence has vast potential, and its responsible implementation is up to us.

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