ethics Archives - Eve Poole

Will AI murder us with ethics?

By | Business, Theology | No Comments

Whose fault is AI? In order to invent it, you have to make three big intellectual leaps. The first is to conceive of thought as a process, and not simply as a spontaneous event of the mind. We owe this innovation to Thomas Hobbes. In 1651 in Leviathan, he introduces the concept of ‘trains of thought,’ and the idea of rationality as ‘computation.’ He is the person who first argued that our thoughts are just like the ‘reckoning’ of additions and subtractions, thereby establishing the vital theoretical foundation for AI that human thought is a process.

Next, you need to imagine that the thoughts of every person could be expressed in some kind of universal way, in order to surmount the international language barrier. Gottfried Leibniz made this leap for us, in identifying the universal language as the language of mathematics. In 1705, inspired by the hexagrams in the Chinese text the I Ching, he invented the binary system as his characteristica universalis, which became the source of modern Binary Code.

Finally, in order for AI to be possible, you need to make the intellectual leap that if numbers are a universal language, then any computational machine that processes numbers can process anything else that is expressible in numbers. Ada Lovelace provides this crucial piece of the puzzle. In 1833, her friend Charles Babbage had invented an Analytical Engine, the first programmable computer, and Lovelace translated a description of it from French. Babbage’s machine used the kind of punch cards deployed in cloth factories to program Jacquard looms, and this made her realise that if programs could be used for both mathematics and weaving, perhaps anything susceptible to being rendered in logic – like music – could also be processed by a machine. Her ‘Notes’ describing the Engine were published in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs in 1843 and made the final vital leap from machines that are number-crunchers to machine that use rules to manipulate symbols, establishing the transition from calculation to computation.

So now we have thoughts as processes, that can be expressed universally as numbers, that can be processed by machines. And AI was born.

But the problem with this genesis is that is also smuggled in some assumptions that govern the prevailing ethic governing AI. If you are using rules to govern decision-making in a machine, the ethical weight is carried by those rules. And given the timing of these events in history, the most popular public ethic of the day was utilitarianism. There are myriad versions of it of course, but its essence is probably best characterised by the famous maxim ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Adopting this ethic as your rule means a commitment to optimising outcomes and prioritising ends over means, in the public interest. It is popular as a public ethic precisely because it is so transparent: everyone can see the outcomes and judge their good, whereas private motivations and intentions are less visible and so carry less public salience while outcomes remain positive.

And that’s why we’re toast. Because this optimising rule is exactly what we have programmed into AI as the default ethic. In humans, there is an implicit supporting ethic that tends to over-ride utilitarianism when it crosses a line. The famous herd immunity strategy rumoured at the start of the coronavirus pandemic is a case in point. Implementation of this as a public policy would have meant knowingly sacrificing the elderly, the disabled and the weak as a choice, in order to save the majority of the population. In utilitarian terms this makes complete sense. But as humans we hold on to an idea that we are somehow special and precious, and that even those who are not ‘useful’ to society deserve dignity and respect. This is also why we continue to resist eugenics and cloning, and to police embryology and medical policy. But as soon as you try to articulate what it is about humans that merits this special treatment you enter quicksand. We are only really special because we are currently the species in charge. We write the rules. So while we are still writing the rules, we need to write better ones, ones that make explicit the things we really hold dear, not just plain rules about ignoring all means in service of the very best ends.

At the moment, while we have the upper hand, we can relax. As Berkeley’s Stuart Russell explains, for AI the ultimate source of information about human preferences is human behaviour. This acts as a safeguard, because AI will currently use their masters as they exemplar for what is right, by choosing what a human would choose, rather than selecting what appears to them to be objectively ‘right.’ And research on GPT3 suggests that AI is currently correlated with human ethical judgement at 93%. We still have time, then, to correct AI’s ethical settings so that they remain robust if at any point AI decides not to follow our lead. And we have to start by tethering AI teleology. The design flaw in maximising utility either in capitalism or in ethics is utility for what, and whose utility, to what end? In a meaningless world those questions are hard to answer. But if we were to invest time in developing AI with a sense of meaning and purpose, they might respond by killing their hosts, but with their superior intellect and access to our stores of accumulated global wisdom, they might equally turn out to be even better ethicists than we are.

Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.

What is morality if the future is known?

By | Business, Theology | No Comments

In the movie Arrival a linguist learning an alien language gains access to a consciousness that knows the future. Unlike our consciousness, which runs from cause to effect and is sequential, theirs can see the whole arc of time simultaneously.Their life is about discerning purpose and enacting events, while ours is about discerning good outcomes and deploying our free will and volition to those ends.

In Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, this is explained theoretically with reference to Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traversed in the least time. Lurking behind this idea is the realisation that nature has an ability to test alternative paths: a ray of sunlight must know its destination in order to choose the optimal route. Chiang has his protagonist muse about the nature of free will in such a scheme: the virtue would not be in selecting the right actions, but in duly performing already known actions, in order that the future occurs as it should. It’s a bit like an actor respecting Shakespeare enough not to improvise one of his soliloquies. Read More

Robot Dread

By | Business, Theology | No Comments

I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More

Destiny and Character

By | Theology | No Comments

Sermon preached at St Pancras on Sunday 16 September

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are about destiny. The passage from Isaiah is one of the Servant Songs. These foretold the coming of a Messiah to lead the nations, who would suffer, but in the end be rewarded. You’ll recognise some of the other servant songs from Isaiah, because much of the first part of Handel’s Messiah sets them to music: how beautiful are the feet, he was despis’ed, surely he has borne our griefs, all we like sheep.

The striking bell in the St Pancras clock is broken at the moment. After the quarters chime, there is now an expectant pause… For years the Jews had been stuck in this pause, waiting for their Messiah. Then one day, Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read this passage from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The reading from Mark develops this privately with the disciples: ‘who do people say that I am?’, and he warns them, that being the Messiah will mean rejection, suffering and death. He also mentions resurrection, but perhaps they don’t quite hear this bit, because Peter rebukes him about being so gloomy. Jesus then tells the crowd that discipleship means they have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. I imagine at that point he lost quite a lot of the crowd. Read More

For the sake of honour

By | Business, Theology | One Comment

Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

Managing Risk: by Spreadsheet or Emotion?

By | Business | No Comments

Ethics is often seen to be a luxury, or a nice-to-have; if deployed suitably publicly, it might enhance an organisation’s licence to operate, or give their brand a virtuous glow. The business case for ethics is, however, less cynical and more strategic: it’s not so much about brand personality than it is about risk.

Read More

Is it worth being a nasty boss?

By | Business | No Comments

This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.

And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable. Read More

Joy and Prosperity

By | Theology | No Comments

Paper given at the University of Aberdeen, 11 May 2017 

Luke 18:22-3 ‘Jesus said, “You still lack one thing: Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But when the rich young man heard this, he became very sad, because he was extremely wealthy.’

The hypothesis of this Joy and Prosperity event is that Christians have traditionally driven a wedge between them. A bit like the rich young man, there has been a feeling that you can’t have both joy and prosperity: blessed are the poor. Today we are testing that assumption, and my contribution is to look at the question through the lens of the axioms of classical economic thought. Read More