AI Ethics: A Call to Faculty

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AI Ethics: A Call to Faculty
Communications of the ACM, September 2021, Vol. 64 No. 9, Pages 43-45
By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh

“To say that AI, today, is a technical discipline is entirely naive: it is a social, worldwide experiment. Our tools have teeth that cut into the everyday lives of all, and this leaves a collection of engineers and scientists in the awkward position of having far more impact on the future than is their due.

…But AI ethics is not the science of ethics, but rather shorthand for the notion of applying ethical considerations to issues surfaced by AI technologies: surveillance, information ownership, privacy, emotional manipulation, agency, autonomous military operations, and so forth.”


This past year has seen a significant blossoming of discussions on the ethics of AI. In working groups and meetings spanning IEEE, ACM, U.N. and the World Economic Forum as well as a handful of governmental advisory committees, more intimate breakout sessions afford an opportunity to observe how we, as robotics and AI researchers, communicate our own relationship to ethics within a field teeming with possibilities of both benefit and harm.


Unfortunately, many of these opportunities fail to realize authentic forward progress during discussions that repeat similar memes. Three common myths pervade such discussions, frequently stifling any synthesis: education is not needed; external regulation is undesirable; and technological optimism provides justifiable hope.



The AI research community cannot sit this out. We are a critical expert group with sufficient know-how to separate authentic issues from hyperbole, to distinguish plans of action that can actually make a difference from hot air. If we do not become part of the solution, we will lose our legitimacy as well-intentioned visionaries.


Education for all stakeholders is imperative for awareness. AI is the very definition of a boundary technology that is sufficiently alien that everyone needs scaffolding to make informed decisions; and we cannot pass off the duty of care to create broad educational interventions to anyone else. Rule-making and regulation is equally essential. Nothing about historical corporate and governmental behavior can rationalize a laissez-faire approach when the consequences of inaction are so clearly inequitable. Finally, the hyperbole of techno-optimism needs to end. The public invests our opinions with significant credence, and when we state that our algorithms will be ethical innately, they actually imagine autonomous systems with human meta-cognition. There is no room for us to promulgate such a gap between computational reality and blue-sky wishes, particularly when AI is already so consequential to our lived experience. Let’s embrace strong education, clear-headed regulation, and let’s tone down the hyperbole of technological optimism.

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About the Author:

Illah Reza Nourbakhsh is Executive Director, Center for Shared Prosperity Director, CREATE Lab K&L Gates Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

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