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How AI Can Be a Force for Good

The Avatar Kids project allows hospitalized children to be present in the classroom through a remote-controlled robot.

Artificial intelligence is a distinct form of autonomous, self-learning agency that raises unique ethical challenges.

Credit: BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence (AI) is not just a new technology that requires regulation. It is a powerful force that is reshaping daily practices, personal and professional interactions, and environments. For the well-being of humanity, it is crucial that this power is used as a force of good. Ethics plays a key role in this process by ensuring that regulations of AI harness its potential while mitigating its risks.

AI may be defined in many ways. Get its definition wrong, and any assessment of the ethical challenges of AI becomes science fiction at best or an irresponsible distraction at worst, as in the case of the singularity debate. A scientifically sound approach is to draw on its classic definition (1) as a growing resource of interactive, autonomous, self-learning agency, which enables computational artifacts to perform tasks that otherwise would require human intelligence to be executed successfully (2). AI can then be further defined in terms of features such as the computational models on which it relies or the architecture of the technology. But when it comes to ethical and policy-related issues, the latter distinctions are unnecessary (3). On the one hand, AI is fueled by data and therefore faces ethical challenges related to data governance, including consent, ownership, and privacy. These data-related challenges may be exacerbated by AI, but would occur even without AI. On the other hand, AI is a distinct form of autonomous and self-learning agency and thus raises unique ethical challenges. The latter are the focus of this article.

The ethical debate on AI as a new form of agency dates to the 1960s (2, 4). Since then, many of the relevant problems have concerned delegation and responsibility. As AI is used in ever more contexts, from recruitment to health care, understanding which tasks and decisions to entrust (delegate) to AI and how to ascribe responsibility for its performance are pressing ethical problems. At the same time, as AI becomes invisibly ubiquitous, new ethical challenges emerge. The protection of human self-determination is one of the most relevant and must be addressed urgently. The application of AI to profile users for targeted advertising, as in the case of online service providers, and in political campaigns, as unveiled by the Cambridge Analytica case, offer clear examples of the potential of AI to capture users' preferences and characteristics and hence shape their goals and nudge their behavior to an extent that may undermine their self-determination.


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