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Defining Ethics in AI and Tech

Defining Ethics in AI and Tech

The topic of AI ethics is everywhere lately. We’ve covered it here before in a few ways. But let’s dive into a set of complex questions that often surface in discussions on artificial intelligence (AI) and technology, that I get asked after nearly every keynote, and that come up repeatedly in discussions on The Tech Humanist Show:

Whose ethics are we incorporating into our tech?

Who decides what is right and wrong in a world increasingly governed by algorithms?

Aren’t ethics subjective?

In his book ‘Ethical Machines’, Reid Blackman distinguishes between individual beliefs about ethics and ethics itself.

“A significant source of confusion for many people who think of ethics as subjective is failing to distinguish between people’s beliefs about ethics—what they believe to be ethically right or wrong, good or bad, and so on—and ethics itself.” (Reid Blackman, Ethical Machines)

(Ethical Machines: Your Concise Guide to Totally Unbiased, Transparent, and Respectful AI: Blackman, Reid: 9781647822811: Books, n.d.)

Ethics is not a fixed set of universal laws. Personal values will play a role in articulating what seems to be the prevailing set of norms. But it’s also not about making a finger in the wind guess about what’s morally right. It’s an ever-evolving discipline more akin to analysis than to fashion.

That means our apprpach to AI ethics — and tech ethics overall — will be shaped by analysis; by an intentional inventory of our collective thoughts, judgments, and empathy.

Aren’t ethics the same as religious belief?

A common sticking point is the idea that ethics are inevitably drawn from religion, so we are bound to face divisions that skew along sectarian lines.

But as Greg Epstein eloquently states in his book, ‘Good Without God’, it’s not divine beings that create values. It’s us, humans. And since it’s us, and not divine beings, we don’t have to rely on one handed-down interpretation versus another.

“In either case Euthyphro drives home the point that mere belief in God can’t make us good, and it can’t point the way to “timeless values” that we humans aren’t equally capable of arriving at on our own terms. Gods don’t—can’t—create values. Humans can, and so we must do so wisely.”

— (Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe: Epstein, Greg: 9780061670121: Books, n.d.)

We have the responsibility and the capability to wisely define our ethical norms. We need to understand that gods, or any higher powers, don’t create values. We do. It’s a strong reminder that our human capacity for ethics is not only powerful but necessary.

How do we create any kind of universal code of AI ethics for our organizations and the tech we develop?

So, what does this mean for us, the leaders, the tech designers, developers—and yes, also the users of AI and tech tools? Simply put, we are the architects of our own ethical landscape. Every decision we make, every action we take, has the potential to shape this landscape. This isn’t a responsibility to be taken lightly.

The tools we need for the task of defining AI ethics aren’t physical, but intellectual and emotional. Sound judgment, critical thinking, active empathy – these are the building blocks of ethical decision-making. Furthermore, continuous dialogue and reflection on what constitutes ethical behavior and the collective good are integral to this process.

We are not merely participants in this process; we are the drivers. There isn’t a prescribed set of values that we need to strictly adhere to. Instead, we have the freedom – and the responsibility – to actively shape our moral landscape in thoughtful, meaningful ways.

The question of ethics in tech isn’t about one person or one corporation setting the standards. It’s about all of us, collectively defining ‘what matters next.’ We are not only capable of discerning right from wrong without divine intervention, but we are tasked with the responsibility to do so. So, let’s rise to the challenge and create a future that reflects our highest ethical ideals.