22nd May 2019

Artificial Intelligence – the ethical question

robot hand and woman hand trying to touch

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park, 1991.

 Nearly 30-years later, it’s not resurrected dinosaurs you could apply this to, but its 21st Century equivalent, Artificial Intelligence (AI). The benefits of this phenomenon are obvious. Robots have made our everyday lives more efficient and convenient, as well as generally making mundane tasks easier and quicker to do.

The future of AI continues to look bright. The workplace has changed rapidly thanks to automation and self-driving vehicles are close to becoming a reality. A motorway journey might soon be possible with a simple push of a button or click of a mouse. No more middle lane hoggers and missed turnings.

That all sounds amazing, of course. But has anyone stopped to think about the consequences of it all? Replacing humans with technological counterparts will have huge effects on our society, both ethically and environmentally.

Let’s look at some of the concerns around AI and answer the ethical question around its use.

Unemployment will rise, won’t it?

This is true in some industries. Machines are already capable of doing the same jobs we do. Better in many instances. Manual and skilled labour are both affected and will continue to be. Robots don’t make mistakes or get tired, so they make better employees. This will lead to people being out of work.

However, it’s also meant workers have stopped doing some dangerous jobs and others have moved into more complex-roles robots can’t yet do, which can further their careers. There’s also a good chance kids at school today will end up doing a job that’s not been invented yet. And we always need people to invent more advanced machines (until another machine can do it).

The machines replacing us have rights, right?

Not yet, no. Even the most powerful machines can’t replicate human thought and emotion. The Holy Grail for scientists is to create consciousness. But if they’re successful, will this mean robots will have contracts of employment, a salary, and expect to be treated like us? What would happen if a machine was treated badly or unfairly? Would they be entitled to legal representation like human workers? This could be a hugely complex issue to sort out.

What about Terminator? Could that happen?

A war between humans and machines is very unlikely to break out. However, it’s not impossible that a machine might inadvertently suggest that wiping us out is a good thing. How? Well, ask a computer to work out a cure for a fatal disease, and getting rid of anything that can get that fatal disease  is a logical way of doing it. Bye-bye human race.

Is AI bad for the planet?

Our thirst for technology is certainly bad news for the environment. The materials used in smartphone production, like nickel, cobalt and graphite, has led to huge mining operations in China, India and Canada. Add that to the plastic used in most phones, tablets and PCs and you can see the harm the production is doing.

One computer manufacturer even keeps its giant servers on the ocean floor to stop them overheating. This warms the water making conditions more difficult for the fish and marine wildlife found in it, as well as causing other ecological issues.

However, AI is also helping reverse some of the damage it causes. Energy companies are using it to help businesses and consumers optimise energy efficiency and even discover energy-saving qualities in minerals and metals, which can replace carbon producing fossil fuels.

So, as to the question of whether AI is ethical, there’s no simple yes or no. The AI revolution has led to machines putting humans out of work and is responsible for huge environmental issues too.  However, it’s been responsible for huge technological and societal advances that have made our lives easier and safer.

AI has massive potential for mankind, so perhaps it’s up to us to make sure we implement it responsibly and ethically.