Summary contributed by our researcher Connor Wright (Philosophy, University of Exeter)
*Link to original paper + authors at the bottom.
Mini-summary: Having caused at least some of the fears surrounding AI, science fiction is being repurposed as the method of increasing the engagement of computer science students in the ethical space. Given how technologists do not work in an ethical vacuum, science fiction’s ability to present current situations in unfamiliar settings and encourage the consideration of different viewpoints represent this practice as ethics’ lifeline towards being properly considered. Ethics can no longer be seen as something to be ticked off the list after one class by technology practitioners, and science fiction can present ethics in a way to strongly prevent that. The more students that engage in this space the better, and science fiction poses a surprising amount of potential.
It wouldn’t prove shocking to say how science fiction has had its fair share in generating some of the AI fears of today. From iRobot to Terminator, science fiction has formed the basis of many people’s fears and concerns with AI technology. However, the authors of this paper have turned this on its head. Now, science fiction is being proposed as a way to unlock and make more accessible the AI ethics space to computer science students, and they make a good point. I’ll now explain why.
Given how technical practitioners are no longer being met solely with technical questions, the practice has now expanded into the realm of ethics. This has generally not been well-received by technologists such as computer science students, with ethics already being seen as something to tick off the lost after one class. The educational elitism stemming from ethics (and philosophy in general) in the Greek ages, and often throwing up more questions than answers, it’s been viewed as out of place in the dualistic environment of computer science. The authors dully make this observation and draw an interesting comparison to the way the subject is taught. Here, in order to establish a firm grounding of the basics, computer science is generally taught with an authoritative overtone, leaving very little room for dissent. As a result, a mindset of ‘absolute truths’ is generated within the field, with the basics being taught seen as unquestionable. With this mindset, it’s easy to see why considering multiple viewpoints on even basic concepts is considered as a best practice rather than a requirement. However, the authors see a way to solve this, and it goes by the name of science fiction.
Science fiction posses the ability to represent current ethical problems without the veil of educational necessity, reducing the barrier to entry for the topic. Furthermore, the weird and unfamiliar representations of these problems make it more difficult to arrive at a viewpoint on the topic. Resultantly, students are encouraged to utilise their critical thinking skills and consider multiple viewpoints at the same time. For example, the problem of self-driving cars. While the decision to implement the technology was to save countless lives from road traffic accidents, even the best intentions have grave consequences. While preventing the deaths of many, the technology will not prevent mass unemployment resulting from the technology slowly replacing human-centered driving tasks (such as long-distance truck journeys and taxi drivers). Hence, tackling such an issue through a different, engaging, science fiction example will help to bring these concerns to light.
One of the most important points to consider in light of this proposal is the shift in mindset associated with the practice of ethics. Instead of being orientated around academic tradition, ethics is now being framed as ‘practical ethics’ which encompasses and can be applied to current situations. Instead of debating about the theory and then applying it to the problem, the problem is considered first in order to garner intuitions before launching into a moral framework. Above all, this problem-centered approach keeps the considerations relevant to the students, as well as creating a tangible motivation as to why an ethics course is important in the computer science space.
Creating engaging content without the educational barrier to entry, ethics is able to be re-marketed as an engaging and worthy topic in the computer science world. Permitting the consideration of other viewpoints in unfamiliar scenarios and its up-to-date nature, science fiction stands itself in good stead to help further ethics’ cause. The proliferation of technology thanks to AI has now made ethics a priority in the space, and the more students that engage in the practice, the more refined our AI future gets.
Original paper by Emmanuelle Burton, Judy Goldsmith, Nicholas Mattei: https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/WS/AAAIW15/paper/view/10139/10129