Technology has always been a double-edged sword, sparking opportunity for some, but often introducing painful change for others. In the past fifty years, this dynamic has accelerated. The average person today carries a mobile phone with more processing and storage power than a 1970s mainframe computer.
The nature of work has also changed dramatically, as industry and commerce have been disrupted by technology and globalization. Many of the companies that built the traditional American middle class have fallen by the wayside, together with the blue-collar job opportunities they offered. Now, white collar and knowledge worker positions are also under pressure, as organizations look to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics to drive self-service and direct-to-customer strategies.
We’re at a point in business and society where AI is becoming more and more a factor in our lives. Intelligent machines are being used to support myriad tasks that were once the realm of science fiction. Combine this with the massive amounts of data being collected, collated, and stored about every facet of our lives — and we have cause to stop and ponder the ethical concerns of artificial intelligence.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues raised by the use of artificial intelligence.
What Happens When Jobs Go Away?
Just as robots have replaced skilled factory workers, AI will reduce the need for white-collar knowledge workers. With fewer opportunities for well-paying jobs, displaced workers will shift to lower-paid positions, multiple jobs, and to the ‘gig economy.’ This downward pressure will continue to contribute to income equality.
While it’s not clear what the overall solution is for this problem, an individual should look to education and training in current technologies as the sensible approach.
Distribution of Wealth
It’s clear that a lot of money has been, and will continue to be, generated through the use of smart technology. Just look at the finance sector, with software-driven, but human-managed, high-frequency securities trading. However, now some are removing the human element and experimenting with AI-managed trading.
Technology has been a significant contributor to income inequality in the world. Workers with cutting-edge technology skills are in short supply and demand higher wages, but research still shows that the middle class is shrinking.
AI’s Far-Reaching Effects
Nowadays, we’re all subjected to interactions with AI technologies. Sure, the majority of them — looking at you, Siri and Alexa — would not pass the Turing Test, but they still impact our lives. Consider internet ad technology that feeds upon our personal data and habits. What about the infamous use of Facebook data that impacted the 2016 US Presidential election results? And let’s not forget how addictive — and perhaps anti-social — online games can be.
As more and more products and services utilize mass-harvested personal data and machine learning, public awareness and regulation will need to keep pace to keep the organizations that use these powerful technologies honest.
Maintaining Safety with AI
When anything is highly leveraged, small incidents or mistakes can be greatly magnified. Think about the 2010 Flash Crash, when a glitch in a high-frequency trading program caused a trillion-dollar stock market crash. What about a malware attack on our power grids — it’s happened in other countries. And let’s not even think about an attack on our air traffic control systems.
In the early days of computerization, companies had contingency plans for operating in case of systems outages. Today, with our dependence on software-controlled systems, that’s not an option. We must simply trust that there are necessary protections to guard against attack, and also safeguards to prevent cascading failures.
In the meantime, try spending some time learning how to live without your iPhone or Android. How many of you have a road atlas, in case Waze or Google Maps is not available? If the power grid goes down, how long can any of us survive?
Avoiding the Singularity
What happens if we become totally dependent on artificial intelligence? What happens if humanity creates an AI that thinks (and maybe does) know better than its human masters? Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We must hope that appropriate fail-safes are in place to prevent a rogue AI from running amok. Oh, by the way, let’s make sure it doesn’t know about the Big Red OFF button.
We’ve covered a number of the concerns that AI ethicists are pondering. Some even raise the question of the humane treatment of AI. Let’s face it, that’s not so bizarre, given that the US corporations have been afforded some of the same rights as human citizens.
The bottom line is that AI is here to stay. As individuals, all we can do is treat AI technology with due respect and educate ourselves about its benefits and dangers. To begin, you can check out our Looking into AI with Microsoft Azure webinar. Trainer Ben Finkel discusses how organizations can take advantage of the machine learning capabilities that Microsoft has added to its Azure cloud services.