What Should We Learn From... Ethics and Autonomous Systems: Perils and Promises

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What Should We Learn From... Ethics and Autonomous Systems: Perils and Promises

"Artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in autonomous systems have promised everything from utopian freedom to existential dystopia. The unfilled hyperbole surrounding past and present promises regarding AI futures has left many people skeptical, afraid, or just confused. Rational discussion is often left in the wake due to the fears and fantasy evoked by the press and Hollywood. Fortunately, as a byproduct, this has resulted in a blossoming of worldwide discourse on the ethical implications of the intelligent machines we are creating. Many near-and mid-term ethical concerns have arisen with the advent of autonomous systems: particularly regarding driverless cars, privacy and drones, companion and intimate robotics, the displacement of jobs by intelligent machines, and warfighting robots among others. The IEEE Global Initiative on the Ethics of Autonomous Systems, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the White House, and the Future of Life Institute are among many responsible organizations that are now considering the ramifications of the real-world consequences of machine autonomy as we continue to stumble about trying to find a way forward.

One thing can clearly be stated: We are creating autonomous technology faster than we are able to 1) understand its implications; 2) interpret it within moral frameworks; and 3) create policy and legislation to govern its development and deployment. Progress on AI, despite a rather slow pace for decades, finally appears to be accelerating as evidenced by advances in machine learning (Google’s Alpha Go), cognitive computing (IBM’s Watson), robotics (Boston Dynamics’ Mini Spot and Atlas), speech understanding (Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo), etc.; the list goes on. While we are now in a catch-up phase regarding regulation and legislation, society and governments need to be far more proactive and must discuss and debate the difficult questions surrounding the use of artificial intelligence. If we ignore the increasingly rapid pace of advances, we do so at our own peril as the very fabric of our society and international relations will be tested at the very least and possibly ruptured in unpredictable ways at the worst.

There are generally no universal rights or wrongs with respect to autonomous systems given that there are competing ethical frameworks by which to assess their outcomes. This is further compounded by cultural and societal differences worldwide. Tensions exist between the rights of individuals or groups (embodied in rights-based/Kantian ethical theories) versus maximizing the overall happiness of all concerned (as found in consequentialist/utilitarian theories). Nonetheless, policy and law must follow as a result of such deliberations."

In this light, Ronald C. Arkin review three of the near-term critical threats from the point of view of a practicing roboticist and ethicist of late who has been involved in these discussions internationally for over a decade in Proceedings of the IEEE, Oct. 2016. He discussed three questions in the article Ethics and Autonomous Systems: Perils and Promises:

  1. Driverless cars-Who lives and who dies?
  2. Using robots to save noncombatant lives: a moral imperative?
  3. Intimate robotics-How close is too close?

"It is up to all of us to secure a reasonable future for ourselves, our families, our society, and the world. Technologists need to engage in these discussions and be circumspect on the technology they are creating. Proactive discussion is essential-start today."

Ronald C. Arkin. Ethics and Autonomous Systems: Perils and Promises. Proceedings of the IEEE, Oct. 2016


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