Everyone should think about the ethics of the work they do, and the work they choose not to do. Artificial Intelligence and robots often seem like fun science fiction, but in fact already affect our daily lives. For example, services like Google and Amazon help us find what we want by using AI. They learn both from us and about us when we use them. The USA and some other countries and organizations now employ robots in warfare.
Since 1996 I have been writing about AI and Society, including maintaining this web page. I was worried because some researchers got into the news by claiming that AI or intelligent robots would one day take over the world. This page was originally about why that wasn't going to happen.
But by 2008 the USA had more robots in Iraq than allied troops (about 9,000). Also, several prominent scientists began publicly working on the problem of making robots ethical. The problem here is not the robots taking over the world, but that some people want to pretend that robots are responsible for themselves. In fact, robots belong to us. People, governments and companies build, own and program robots. Whoever owns and operates a robot is responsible for what it does.
If robots might take over the world, or machines might learn to predict our every move or purchase, or governments might try to put the blame robots for their own unethical policy decisions, then why would anyone work on advancing AI? My personal reason for building AI is simple: I want to help people think.
Our society faces many hard problems, like protecting the environment, avoiding and ending wars, and dealing with the consequences of overpopulation while protecting human rights. These problems are so hard, they might actually be impossible to solve. But building and using AI is one way we might figure out some answers. If we have tools to help us think, they might make us smarter. And if we have tools that help us understand how we think, that might help us find ways to be happier.
Of course, all knowledge and tools, including AI, can be used for good or for bad. This is why it's important to think about what AI is, and how we want it to be used. This page is designed to help people (including me) think about the ethics of AI research.
To start out with the basics: here's a Definition of Artificial Intelligence I coauthored with Jeremy Wyatt for the Children's Britannica. And here is an interview where an American high school student asks me about studying AI.
In the mid-1990s I attended a number of talks that made me realize that some people really expected AI to replace humans. Some people were excited about this, and some were afraid. Some of these people were well-known scientists. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that they were all making a very basic mistake. They were afraid that whatever was smartest would "win", somehow. But we already have calculators that can do math better than us, and they don't even take over the pockets they live in, let alone the world.
My friend Phil Kime agreed with me, and added that he thought the problem was that people didn't have enough direct, personal experience of AI to really understand whether or not it was human. So we wrote one of my first published papers, Just Another Artifact: Ethics and the Empirical Experience of AI. We first wrote it in 1996; it eventually got partially published in 1998 in a cybernetics workshop. Recently we decided it was worth rewriting and publishing the paper properly, so a radically updated version Just an Artifact: Why Machines are Perceived as Moral Agents, appeared in the proceedings of The Twenty-Second International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI '11).
We argue that realistic experience of AI would help us better judge what it means to be human, and help us get over our over-identification with AI systems. We pointed out that there are ethical issues with AI, but they are all the same issues we have with other artifacts we build and value or rely on, such as fine art or sewage plants.
It is not enough for experts to understand the role of AI in society. We also have a professional obligation to communicate that understanding to non-experts. The people who will use and buy AI should know what its risks really are. Unfortunately, it's easier to get famous and sell robots if you go around pretending that your robot really needs to be loved, or otherwise really is human – or super human! In 2000 wrote an article about this called A Proposal for the Humanoid Agent-builders League (HAL). This was presented at The Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and (Quasi-)Human Rights at AISB 2000, which was a great meeting. In the paper I propose creating a league of programmers dedicated to opposing the misuse of AI technology to exploit people's natural emotional empathy. The slogans would be things like "AI: Art not Soul" or Robot's Won't Rule.
In 2000 I didn't know that the US military would soon try to give robots ethical obligations, so the whole paper is written in a fairly humorous style. As AI has gotten better, the issues have gotten more serious. Fortunately, academics and other experts are also getting serious about them too. In 2010 I was invited to help the British Robotics funding agency, the EPSRC, work on this topic, and was heavily involved in writing their Principles of Robotics. So a lot of the ideas in my HAL paper are now at least informal UK policy. The five principles are:
In October 2007, I was invited to participate in a workshop called Artificial Companions in Society: Perspectives on the Present and Future at the Oxford Internet Institute. I took the chance to write my third ethics article, Robots Should Be Slaves. This is now a book chapter in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions: Key social, psychological, ethical and design issues, a 2010 book edited by Yorick Wilks. The idea is not that we should abuse robots (and of course it isn't that human slavery was OK!) The idea is that robots, being authored by us, will always be owned—completely. Fortunately, even though we may need robots to have and understand things like emotions, it is still both possible and ethically obligatory not to make them suffer from neglect, a lack of self-actualization, or their low social status in the way a person would. Robots are things we build, and so we can pick their goals and behaviours. Both buyers and builders ought to pick those goals sensibly.
By coincidence, at the same time I was writing the final version
of that book chapter, I got asked to comment on an article by Anne
Foerst called Robots and Theology. Anne and I had worked
on the Cog project at the MIT AI
Laboratory together in 1995. In fact, we'd argued about this
before, but I think the arguments are better phrased in that
issue. Anne has the interesting perspective that robots are
capable of being persons and knowing sin, and as such are a part
of the spiritual world. I argue in Building Persons is a Choice
that while it is interesting to use robots to reason about what it
means to be human, calling them "human" dehumanises real
people. Worse, it gives people the excuse to blame robots
for their actions, when really anything a robot does is entirely
our own responsibility.
Being worried about the wrong things doesn't mean that there's nothing to worry about. Artificial Intelligence is not as special as many people think, but it is further accelerating a rapidly-building phenomenon that's been going on for about 10,000 years: human culture. Human culture is changing almost every aspect of life on earth, particularly human society.
One of the reasons I object to AI scaremongering is that even
where the fears are realistic, such as Nick
Bostrom and colleague's description of overwhelming,
self-modifying superintelligence, making AI into the
bogeyman displaces that fear 30-60 years into the future. In
is here now, and even without AI, our hyperconnected
socio-technical culture already creates radically new dynamics and
challenges for human society. Bostrom writes about (among
other things) a future machine intelligence pursuing
autonomously a worthwhile goal, bit incidentally converting the
planet into paper clips. We might better think of our
current culture itself as the superintelligent but non-cognizant
machine – a machine that has learned to support more biomass on
the planet than ever before (by mining fossil fuels) but is
changing all that life (at least the large animals) into just a
few species (humans,
dogs, cats, sheep, cows) without anyone specifically
intending to wipe out the rest of the large animals or other
biodiversity on the planet. Similarly, no one
specifically decided that children weren't sufficiently monitored
by their parents up until the 1990s, but now childhood
and parenthood have been entirely transformed in just a few
In 2014 I wrote a very academic book chapter about this called Artificial
Intelligence & Pro-Social Behaviour. As I
said, these changes aren't entirely due to AI. They're the
result of better communication brought on by mobile phones and
social media, the simple fact that there are more people, and
processes of cultural and legislative change. But AI,
particularly machine learning, plays a large and growing
AI and computer science, particularly machine learning but also
HCI, are increasingly able to facilitate the computational social
sciences. Fields that are benefiting include political
science, economics, psychology, anthropology and business /
marketing. As I said at the top of the page,
understanding human behaviour may be the greatest benefit of
artificial intelligence. if it helps us find ways to reduce
conflict and live sustainably. However, knowing fully well
what an individual person is likely to do in a particular
situation is obviously a very, very great power. Negative
applications include deliberate addiction of customers to a
product or service, skewing vote outcomes through
disenfranchisement of some classes of voters, and even just
stalking. It's pretty easy to guess when someone will be
somewhere these days.
As we in the computational social sciences learn more and more,
our models of human behaviour get better and better. As our
models improve, we need less and less data about any particular
individual to predict what they are going to do. So just
practising good data hygiene is not enough, even if that were a
skill we could teach everyone. My professional opinion is
that there is no going back on this, but that isn't to say society
is doomed. Think of it this way. We all know that the
police, the military, even most of our neighbours could get into
our house if they wanted to. But we don't expect them to do
that. And, generally speaking, if anyone does get into our
house, we are able to prosecute them and to claim damages back
from insurance. I think our personal data should be like our
houses. First of all, we shouldn't ever be seen as selling
that data, just leasing it for particular purposes. This is
the model software companies already use for their products, we
should just apply the same legal reasoning to all of us.
Then if we have any reason to suspect our data has been used in a
way we didn't approve, we should be able to prosecute. That
is, the applications of our data should be subject to regulations
that protect ordinary citizens from the intrusions of governments,
corporations and even friends.
For formal citations of the papers by me mentioned on these pages (and much more) see my publications page. I also write blog posts about AI and about ethics. Here is a list of my AI / Robot ethics publications:
Thanks for linking to my 1998 paper (Just Another Artifact: Ethics and the Empirical Experience of AI), but I think your argument is a gross oversimplification of my and Phil Kime's point. Of course autonomous robot weapons can kill you, and are killing people now. But it isn't because some AI has turned evil. AI is no more to blame than other artifacts of our culture, like our foreign policy. Rather than worrying about AI specifically, people should be worrying about government, culture and decision making in general. The threats (and promises) of AI are real, but not as unique as people think. I believe the "singularity" & "ethical robots" (e.g. Arkin) debates are a distraction from the real problem of designing and choosing appropriate governing techniques and assigning appropriate responsibility and blame for societal-level decisions that affect us all.
Mostly by coincidence, I've started doing scientific work on the
origins of (human) ethical behaviour.
On a less related note than a lot of people think, I also write about consciousness, both machine & not. This work came around partly because so many people associate consciousness and ethics, but do they know why?
Similarly, here's some of my papers on emotions, which I also don't think necessarily determine ethical obligation, but many other people differ:
Reminder: HTML and bibtex for formal citations for the above papers are all available on my publications page.