This summary is based on a chapter of Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. Full citation at the bottom.
The ethical implications of autonomous and intelligent systems (A/IS) are, by now, notably numerous and complex. This chapter of Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems by The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems simultaneously adds some definition to the issues surrounding the ethics of autonomous systems by providing clear analysis and recommendations. The topics of inquiry covered in the paper are wide, and each is given between two and four pages of background and subsequent recommendations. At the end of each section, readers will be happy to find a list of further readings if they wish to dive deeper into a specific topic.
The topics covered include, for instance: making ethical concepts and philosophical vocabulary accessible to programmers, policymakers, companies, and other stakeholders; the importance of considering Buddhist, Ubuntu, and Shinto ethics along with typically Western ethical traditions like consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics; an overview of what Buddhist, Ubuntu, and Shinto ethical perspectives can contribute to the discourse surrounding A/IS; the impact of automation in the workplace; the importance of maintaining human autonomy; and the implications of cultural migration for A/IS. The overarching theme that unites these specific topics and the others presented in the paper is the role of classical ethics in the creation, implementation, and use of A/IS. The insights provided on these topics and others covered in the paper can be understood as offering meta-analysis of how ethics and A/IS should interact.
Three features of this piece standout: its use of “A/IS” instead of “AI”, its balanced view concerning ethical implications, and that it features Buddhist, Ubuntu, and Shinto value systems.
First, the authors make a point of using “A/IS” (autonomous and intelligent systems), instead of AI (artificial intelligence) throughout their analysis. This may seem innocuous, but it highlights the authors’ commitment to taking a critical stance towards applying “classical concepts of anthropomorphic autonomy to machines” (p. 37). Using A/IS instead of AI limits these potentially misleading connotations, and gives a more nuanced description of these technologies. This is significant, according to the authors, as it helps orient ethical concerns with regards to A/IS towards established ethical issues, instead of conjuring up insubstantial ones because of misleading terminology.
Second, the paper presents a balanced view of the expected ethical implication of A/IS. While it makes clear that A/IS carry important ethical risks, it also emphasizes that A/IS have had and can continue to have very positive effects on societies. In addition, the authors make tangible recommendations to help make ethics more accessible, more representative, and better-implemented into A/IS.
Third, the authors include Buddhist, Ubuntu, and Shinto ethics in their analysis, and advocate for these traditions’ inclusion in the wider debate about the ethical implications of A/IS. They highlight the possible importance of the Buddhist view on privacy in the context of A/IS. For instance, from a Buddhist perspective, privacy is not merely an individual protection, but a necessity “for a well-functioning society to prosper in the globalized world.” In addition, the paper emphasizes how Buddhism, Ubuntu and Shinto traditions are marked by relationships – not only with other human beings, but with oneself, too, as well as with A/IS.
The authors also explain why the hegemony of typical Western ethics is cause for concern. One central impact of Western ethics’ monopoly on the A/IS ethics discourse is related to standardization as highlighted by Pak-Hang Wong, and which the authors behind the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems cite. According to Wong, making Western ethics the standard (in this case, specifically to evaluate A/IS systems) is a problem because it indirectly assigns greater value to Western ethics than other traditions, establishing the former as “the normative criteria for inclusion to the global network” (Wong, 2016). Following this, the authors note that, in light of this standardization, it falls on those who work outside the accepted standard to devise ways to include other ethical traditions and value systems. They then mention that “liberal values arose out of conflicts of cultural and subcultural differences and are designed to be accommodating enough to include a rather wide range of differences.” (pp. 50-51)
While this may be true, it sidesteps the fact that even though liberal values may be flexible enough to eventually accommodate different value systems, such accommodating is unlikely to come without at least some pushback. What is more, it appears this pushback may overwhelmingly place the burden on individuals from outside the West and/or are already marginalized to advocate for the inclusion of Buddhist, Ubuntu, Shinto, and other perspectives. Considering the power and dominance Western ethics and values possess, it is clear that the struggle to get Eastern and other ethical traditions and value systems (like Indigenous ones) “accommodated” by liberal values will be an unequal one. Later on in the text, the authors nonetheless highlight that “intentionally making space for ethical pluralism is one potential antidote to dominance of the conversation by liberal thought, with its legacy of Western colonialism.” Indeed, if we are to include ethical traditions other than the Western one and make the struggle to do so fairer, the ethics of A/IS community will have to work to create space for these non-Western value systems.
The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. “Classical Ethics in A/IS” in Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, First Edition. IEEE, 2019, 36-67. https://standards.ieee.org/content/ieee-standards/en/industry-connections/ec/autonomous-systems.html