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Ethical Intelligence

July 13, 2015

Some recent events (at least 3) have coincided regarding the debate over whether artificial intelligence, especially in robots, can handle the ethical questions. This is nothing new. Isaac Asimov’s 1942 story “Runaround” introduced Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics. The first interesting event is that Runaround was set in the year 2015! I didn’t remember that, but it was pointed out by a new Nature article by Boer Deng entitled “Machine ethics: The robot’s dilemma”. That’s the 2nd recent event. I thought about writing this post when I saw Deng’s article, but I didn’t have much to say until the 3rd recent event which was an article in, of all things, the Costco Connection entitiled “Is AI a good thing?”. They took a poll, by the way, and 36% of respondents answered “no”!

What really got my attention in the Costco Connection was an anti-AI editorial by James Barrat. I can’t figure out if Barrat legitimately believes what he says because his logic is idiotically outdated. For example, he says in the article, “It [AI] has the potential to threaten us with intelligent weapons, take virtually all of our jobs and, ultimately, cause our extinction.” Well, sure. So do all stupid weapons threaten to kill us, all technology threatens to take our jobs, and our centuries-old industrialization threatens to wipe us out. Nothing particularly unique about AI in this regard. I am suspicious that he seeks to lead his own anti-AI bandwagon because the pro-AI bandwagon is too full, and he needs people to buy his books. The pro-AI crowd can probably help him better by citing him as the negative example for sake of argument.

Both sides of the aisle seem to confuse the issue of technology with the separate issue of philosophy. I do agree that teaching/programming ethics into AI will be challenging. However, I disagree with the claim by Barrat-like folks that humans are actually any better at it than machines right now. Where humans clearly agree on right and wrong, the programming is straight forward. The Nature article by Boer Deng mentions a discussion at the Brookings Institution that involved questions such as these:

“What if a vehicle’s efforts to save its own passengers by, say, slamming on the brakes risked a pile-up with the vehicles behind it? Or what if an autonomous car swerved to avoid a child, but risked hitting someone else nearby?”

Humans have been debating this issue long before Google announced its plans to build an autonomous car. It’s known as the Trolley Problem. So it’s not really the logic of the rules that is the problem. Personally, I side with the pro-AI crowd that believes AI is likely to be better than humans in all areas (cars, weapons, etc.) simply because, as others have noted, the machines can be more consistent and transparent.

So what about the neuroscience? I think this blog is supposed to cover that topic, right? There is an interesting aspect to the issue of ethics intelligence, and it involves the parallel physiology of the brain. Traditionally, expert systems, including an “ethics” program, are thought of as if/then hierarchies of logic. However, animals and humans learn to make decisions without such computation. From a mathematical view, there is a probabilistic nature to it. Kresimir Josic has a nice post on Bayesian Inference and how the brain seems to employ this approach. He has also done research on this himself, as described in this post.

So how does the brain do such computation? The biological neural network of the brain is massively parallel, able to encode complex computations. It is ideal for Bayesian inference because it is trained over time through observation, always adjusting to statistical data. The “rules” are there, but they are probabilistic, not logical. I feel that building ethical AI is a useful challenge because it forces us to look more deeply at the physiology and dynamics behind our own ethics. This will only help us understand it better.

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