Morals & Machines

Morals & Machines

Thursday 9 February 2017 - Waratchaya Limvipuwat

In 1984, director James Cameron introduced to the world, “The Terminator”. This was a film, set in a dystopian world where society is dominated by artificial intelligence networks. Back when the film was first released, the idea of machines and computers being able to revolt against man’s control was absurd. Today, it does not seem so impossible. Machines and computers are increasingly assuming a more prominent role in our lives. Technology was first introduced as a tool to ease the burdens of performing daily tasks. However, such tools are now used in making important decisions. From employment and social media, to health and medical care, mankind has since begun to allocate their duties to artificial intelligence systems.

The process of decision-making is undeniably subjective. Man ‘decides’ based on his preferences; to make decisions based completely on hard facts that are not influenced by our own innate opinions is nearly impossible. In a world full of bias and corruption, it would make more sense to leave such duties to a more objective entity. Yet, we all have doubts. We are very eager to accept new innovations and technologies, whether they are Apple’s new product or Google’s new software. Despite the fact that we hold the value of these systems, products and software in high regard, we find ourselves extensively criticising computers for failing to perform certain simple tasks that we could have accomplished ourselves.

In 2011, IBM developed a question answering computer system, named after the company’s CEO, Watson. Watson’s ability to absorb, analyse and calculate information on a scale faster than any average man was demonstrated through the quiz show Jeopardy! Despite outperforming all the contestants on the show, Watson was shown struggling with the final jeopardy question in the U.S cities category. All contestants gave the correct answer, “Chicago,” while Watson answered, “Toronto.” Many overlooked the fact that Watson had missed the question and directed their interests toward Watson’s ultimate victory over the other contestants, dismissing the error as minor. However, specifically because it was such a simple question, others were concerned. While the computer had proven its superiority given that it could absorb and analyse vast quantities of data in a short amount of time, can we truly place our trust in it? IBM has announced that Watson is able to search through up to ‘1.5 million patient records,’ an ability no human doctor can match. Wellpoint’s Samuel Nessbaum claims that Watson is able to diagnose lung cancer successfully in 90% of the patients compared to human doctors’ less accurate level of diagnosis.

The computer is beneficial as it could act as a ‘wise counselor’ for medical professionals, offering guidance and this ultimately could reduce the budget spent on healthcare. However, Watson’s ability to perform superhuman functions has its limits. IBM research scientist, Eric Brown cautions that when an Urban Dictionary was included into Watson’s dataset, Watson was unable to distinguish between polite and offensive speech. Therefore, can we truly rely on it to make important decisions when such flaws are still prominent? Can a computer make decisions on matters that require taking into consideration human instincts and subjective feelings? Instead of seeing a computer as a tool to aid men in making decisions, one could assume that we are, theoretically, attempting to create an omnipotent machine-based entity that could make decisions for us.

In a recent study published by UCL computer scientists, an artificially intelligent ‘judge’ was introduced. Developed by algorithm software, the ‘judge’, according to Dr. Nikoloas Alters, can be used to ‘identify patterns in cases that lead to certain outcomes’. The system examines data of English cases. By analysing the linguistics in previous cases, the software is able to make its own verdict. The AI ‘judge’ is a rather outstanding innovation in the field of legal issues as it could relieve lawyers’ extreme workloads. But what then will become of people who are replaced by computers?

By transferring our duties to computer machines, these systems are replacing middle class jobs. Another concern is that because these artificial intelligent systems operate by examining decisions of previous cases. This could simply be a reflection and repetition of our biases. They may merely be observing man’s previous actions and re-applying them again. By acting upon our past decisions, in a sense, these systems are being trained to achieve the same outcomes that subjective, biased humans have achieved. It seems impossible to deduce whether the artificial intelligence systems are truly objective and incorruptible.

In a more recent developments, commercial companies have begun using a ‘hiring algorithm’ to assist employers when selecting recruits. These complex algorithms correlate the performance of employees with the candidates’ data. It computes the possibilities of a candidate’s performance based on his/her characteristics, a process that seems efficient and useful. The computers use mathematical equations to analyse evidence when hiring, intending to eliminate the human tendency to discriminate. Hiring algorithms have since rose in popularity due to their low cost and accuracy. Nevertheless, there are drawbacks to the systems. Algorithms cannot always ensure diversity, especially as the demographic component of working people is constantly changing. More importantly, because the system in hiring algorithms is so complex, sometimes employers themselves do not even understand how it works. The system disregards human nature, which is inherently unpredictable. Due to the contrast between the system and human’s fundamental disposition, there are vague ambiguities that become fatal flaws. What if the system is hiring only certain types of people based on the company’s workplace culture? This ultimately compromises on diversity.

We are heading towards a future, in which we are unable to understand the mechanisms of our own creations. By giving systems the authority to make decisions on our behalf, we are succumbing to its domination. Human affairs are a complex matter. Artificial intelligence can fail, in the sense that it is unable to comply with the ethical norms that form the basis of human judgments. Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci mentioned that humans have always been biased beings and they are prone to making mistakes. She further states, “but that’s exactly my point. We cannot escape these difficult questions. We cannot outsource our responsibilities to machines”. That is not to say that technological innovations should not be embraced at all. The uncertainty brought upon by technology pales in significance to the great benefits it brings. Therefore such advancements should be accepted, but with caution. In fact, we should remain mindful of how we handle developments of all kinds. The practicability in using machines, computers and artificial intelligence systems to aid our daily lives and to help us make better decisions is rational. Nevertheless, human morals should not be undermined or displaced by these advancements. Sometimes it is worth noting, as quoted by Sherwood Anderson, “[t]he machines men are intent on making, have carried them very far from the old sweet things.”

In an age of technological innovations, in the heat of competition between peers to achieve more luxury and contentment in life, as advised by Tufekci, it is vital that we hold fast to our ethics and morals.

 

Image Credit – Vcarceler via Wikimedia Commons – License

About the author

Author: Waratchaya Limvipuwat