There are dangers of teaching computers to learn the things humans do best – not least because makers of such machines cannot explain the knowledge their creations have acquiredBrad Smith, Microsoft’s president, last week told the Guardian that tech companies should stop behaving as though everything that is not illegal is acceptable. Mr Smith made a good argument that technology may be considered morally neutral but technologists can’t be. He is correct that software engineers ought to take much more seriously the moral consequences of their work.
This argument operates on two levels: conscious and unconscious. It is easy to see the ethical issue in Microsoft’s sale of facial recognition technology to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement while the Trump administration was separating children from parents at the US’s southern border. The moral stance of more than 3,000 Google employees who protested about its Maven contract – where machine learning was to be used for military purposes, starting with drone imaging – with the US Department of Defense should be applauded. Google let the contract lapse. But people with different ethical viewpoints can take different views. In the case of the Maven contract, a rival with fewer qualms picked up the work. Much is contingent on public attitudes. Opinion polls show that Americans are not in favour of developing artificial intelligence technology for warfare, but this changes as soon as the country’s adversaries start to develop them. There is an economic aspect to be considered too. Shoshana Zuboff’s insight, that the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users is capitalism’s latest stage, is key. What is our moral state when AI researchers are paid $1m a year but the people who label and classify the input data are paid $1.47 an hour.