Teaching an Algorithm to Understand Right and Wrong


Aristotle states that it is a fact that “all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good,” but then continues, “What then do we mean by the good?” That, in essence, encapsulates the ethical dilemma.

We all agree that we should be good and just, but it’s much harder to decide what that entails.

“We need to decide to what extent the legal principles that we use to regulate humans can be used for machines. There is a great potential for machines to alert us to bias. We need to not only train our algorithms but also be open to the possibility that they can teach us about ourselves.” – Francesca Rossi, an AI researcher at IBM

Since Aristotle’s time, the questions he raised have been continually discussed and debated. 

Today, as we enter a “cognitive era” of thinking machines, the problem of what should guide our actions is gaining newfound importance. If we find it so difficult to denote the principles by which a person should act justly and wisely, then how are we to encode them within the artificial intelligences we are creating? It is a question that we need to come up with answers for soon.

Cultural Norms vs. Moral Values

Another issue that we will have to contend with is that we will have to decide not only what ethical principles to encode in artificial intelligences but also how they are coded. As noted above, for the most part, “Thou shalt not kill” is a strict principle. Other than a few rare cases, such as the Secret Service or a soldier, it’s more like a preference that is greatly affected by context.

What makes one thing a moral value and another a cultural norm? Well, that’s a tough question for even the most-lauded human ethicists, but we will need to code those decisions into our algorithms. In some cases, there will be strict principles; in others, merely preferences based on context. For some tasks, algorithms will need to be coded differently according to what jurisdiction they operate in.

Setting a Higher Standard

Most AI experts I’ve spoken to think that we will need to set higher moral standards for artificial intelligences than we do for humans.

Major industry players, such as Google, IBM, Amazon, and Facebook, recently set up a partnership to create an open platform between leading AI companies and stakeholders in academia, government, and industry to advance understanding and promote best practices. Yet that is merely a starting point.

Source: Harvard Business Review


Leave a Reply