Beating our digital plowshares into weapons

19/08/2014 — 1 Comment


On Artificial Intelligence as ethical prosthesis

Out here in the grim meat-hook present of Reaper missions and Predator drone strikes we’re already well down track to a future in which decisions as to who lives and who dies are made less and less by human beings, and more and more by automation. Although there’s been a lot of ‘sexy’ discussion recently of the possibility of purely AI decision making, the current panic misses the real issue d’jour, that is the question of how well current day hybrid human-automation systems make such decisions, and the potential for the incremental abrogation of moral authority by the human part of this cybernetic system as the automation in this synthesis becomes progressively more sophisticated and suasive.

As Dijkstra pointed out in the context of programming, one of the problems or biases humans have in thinking about automation is that because it ‘does stuff’, we find the need to imbue it with agency, and from there it’s a short step to treating the automation as a partner in decision making. From this very human misunderstanding it’s almost inevitable that the the decision maker holding such a view will feel that the responsibility for decisions are shared, and responsibility diluted, thereby opening up potential for choice shift in decision making. As the degree of sophistication of such automation increases of course this effect becomes stronger and stronger, even though ‘on paper’ we would not recognise the AI as a rational being in the Kantian sense.

Even the design of decision support system interfaces can pose tricky problems when an ethical component is present, as the dimensions of ethical problem solving (time intensiveness, consideration, uncertainty, uniqueness and reflection) directly conflict with those that make for efficient automation (brevity, formulaic, simplification, certainty and repetition). This inherent conflict thereby ensuring that the interaction of automation and human ethical decision making becomes a tangled and conflicted mess. Technologists of course look at the way in which human beings make such decisions in the real world and believe, rightly or wrongly, that automation can do better. What we should remember is that such automation is still a proxy for the designer, if the designer has no real understanding of the needs of the user in forming such ethical decisions then if if the past is any guide we are up for a future of poorly conceived decision support systems, with all the inevitable and unfortunate consequences that attend. In fact I feel confident in predicting that the designers of such systems will, once again, automate their biases about how humans and automation should interact, with unpleasant surprises for all.

In a broader sense what we’re doing with this current debate is essentially rehashing the old arguments between two world views on the proper role of automation, on the one side automation is intended to supplant those messy, unreliable humans, in the current context effecting an unintentional ethical prosthetic. On the other hand we have the view that automation can and should be used to assist and augment human capabilities, that is it should be used to support and develop peoples innate ethical sense. Unfortunately in this current debate it also looks like the prosthesis school of thought is winning out. My view is that if we continue in this approach of ‘automating out’ moral decision making we will inevitably end up with the amputation of ethical sense in the decision maker, long before killer robots stalk the battlefield, or the high street of your home town.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Technology and moral hazard « Critical Uncertainties - August 27, 2014

    […] also lock us into a seemingly perpetual asymmetric war on terror. And I also expect that with the increasing automation of such activities that blurry line between action and inaction will get thinner and thinner. […]

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