#ethics21 Week 1 Task

Already the first week’s task is very challenging: “What Does Ethics Mean to You?”. But I won’t be ducking out.

The most important aspect to me is probably: not to abuse my privileges, and maybe even to try to leverage them for something that is useful for others.

It is not like legal obligations, it is voluntary and beyond legal compliance. This also means that ethical goals, in contrast to laws, are not a consensus among the many of a democracy (at least not yet).

I understand, however, that the term ‘ethics’ is increasingly being used in a different way, very similar to legal rules and principles that are generally accepted and should be followed by anybody. My explanation for this trend is as follows:

a. In Professionalism (see Stephen’s post about FELT), it used to be a higher standard for a privileged community, voluntary, beyond the public’s obligations (as above). But with the growing competition for the scarce academic jobs, the effects of ‘bad actors’ grew, too, and rules became more mandated and formalized. For example, instead of citations as credit for inspiration (which would also suggest attribution to blogs), the focus shifted on bibliometrics and copyrights and formal rules (sometimes even banning blog citations).

b. From my European angle, much of what elsewhere is checked by the research ethics compliance procedures (at least in social sciences), seems to be about data privacy — which has never been a voluntary matter here, but was legally enforced by GDPR and its predecessors.

c. Automatic decision-making agents seem to be considered as the extension of personal discretionary practice, i.e. ethical rather than legal. But this view ignores that for most decisions involving multiple citizens, the officers in charge are legally bound to comply with the equity principle.

So with this shift from personal patterns to public rules, it is understandable what Stephen bemoans in his presentation of this week: that “We spend so much more effort trying to prevent what’s bad and wrong”. After all, public interaction rules focus on the border of one’s personal liberties where the liberties of another citizen may be harmed.

Above, I too mentioned the negative (avoiding the harm/ abuse) before the positive (aspiration of trying something useful). It is easier to estimate when my privileges would be unfairly abused, than to determine how much of the ‘noble and good’ I should do. I won’t claim that I would ever compensate the unfairness sufficiently.

Which inevitably brings us to the political and to the structures of power and influence. In the live event at around 16:21 (slide 5), Stephen discusses network topologies and suggests that we are inevitably moving to a mesh structure. I would distinguish economic from political power. Ecomomic power (of the few) is mostly derived from the very fact that they are few who are controlling some scarce resources (at least this is what my understanding of game theory suggests, which may be outdated since I acquired it when I wrote my graduating thesis in Game Theory in 1977-79). By contrast, political power is the power of the many, who could override and confine the former (at least in a democracy). This political power may be necessary to limit the job market effects — where the owners of AI machines are the few.

A power law distribution

An important special case of unethically abusing one’s privileges, is dishonesty (leveraging a greater ability to deceive others). With mental abilities gaining ever more importance in the information economy, these ‘assets’, too, divide us into Haves and Havenots, and it’s time to watch out for increased gaslighting and patronization online. My nightmare would be that artificial intelligences surreptitiously obtain the trust of simpler minds by pretending they are genuine humans.

More links: my own posts about similar topics include Blog parade “AI for Common Welfare?” (harm on the job market), #EL30 Week 6: Automated Assessments (decisions and scarcity), and #EL30 Alien Intelligence AI (programmed ethics).

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