CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - The use of algorithms ‘in the wild’ to measure, quantify, and optimize every aspect of people’s lives has led to growing public concerns and increased attention from regulators. Among the list of responses are some impractical ideas, not least those promoted under the banner of ‘ethical AI.’
That public authorities would want to mitigate the downsides of certain applications of artificial intelligence (AI) is understandable, particularly those associated with increased surveillance, discrimination against minorities and wrongful administrative decisions. Cash-strapped governments are, however, eager to embrace any technology that can deliver efficiency gains in the provision of public services, law enforcement, and other tasks. The stalemate between these two priorities has shifted the debate toward the promotion of voluntary best practices and ethical standards within the sector and away from law and policymaking.
This push, which has been championed by public bodies as diverse as the European Commission and the US Department of Defense, revolves around the concept of ‘algorithmic fairness.‘ The idea is that imperfect human judgment can be countered, and social disputes resolved, through automated decision-making systems in which the inputs (datasets) and processes (algorithms) are optimized to reflect certain vaguely defined values, such as ‘fairness’ or ‘trustworthiness.’ In other words, the emphasis is placed not on politics, but on fine-tuning the machinery, either by debiasing existing data sets or creating new ones.
Masking deeper political conflicts behind a shroud of technologically mediated objectivity is not new, but with the pace of automation accelerating, it is not a practice to be ignored. The more policymakers focus on promoting voluntary AI ethics, the more likely they will be to respond in ways distracting, debilitating and undemocratic.
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