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Impact of AI and what that means for ethics in the workplace

* This article was originally published in the Conference Edition of the GRC Professional Magazine 2018

A man is not a man if he lacks virtue. A realm is but a midden of spent notions if it is led by a man of no virtue. Such a realm has no future. Timothy of Llangibbi, c 1400.

A recent article by University of Sussex professor of cognitive science Margaret Boden in Aeon claimed that AI would not dominate the world, because it doesn’t care. Like ‘the market’ It has no emotions. Its will to do anything is programmed by a human to do, and only that. AI did not destroy the worthwhile jobs of millions of Americans and Australians and enormously increase job and income insecurity. AI did not create the algorithms that make sure that black men in the US are jailed more readily and for longer than white men. AI did not create the conditions which led middle-class and working-class men and women to take their lives in ever greater numbers in the US, Europe and here. AI did not steal our data or the 2016 Presidential election or make Brexit happen.

These things were all done by men and women who control industry and politics and sought to use AI for profit above all else—whether that ‘all else’ was people’s health, their livelihoods, even their own professed ‘ethical standards’—just as the industrialists of the first industrial revolution did, the inventors of mass unemployment.

Our ethical standards are a part of what we class as our ‘culture’. They are one of the commonalities which hold us together, part of what Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ calls the ‘myth’ that binds our civilization.

If a person adheres to the ethical tenets of our culture we see him or her as part of our tribe, part of our support network. Each culture has its own ethical rules and standards which consist of an expressed or assumed list of actions that the people of that culture either must or must not do to remain a member. All cultures have their totems and their taboos.

A workplace, at least a medium-sized to large workplace, is an arena of competing cultures each with their own ethical norms. These are designed to enable collaboration and to protect the interests (real or perceived) of the members of that culture. Collaboration, protection and mutual support are why we have culture in the first place.

These cultures can be powerful weapons against management for good or evil.

AI allows management to sidestep these cultural obstacles by using AI to enable virtual workplaces, flexible work schedules and working from home. If people cannot get together and have frequent face-to-face exchanges their commonalities and their cultures decay and with them employees’ sense of unity and shared sense of ethics.

AI has no ethical standards, is a member of no culture and has no commonality with any human being. It doesn’t care either way.

The danger of AI is not that it will destroy ethical standards—and with them the cultures to which they are attached—but rather that it will make them irrelevant. Just as they’re irrelevant to the owners and leaders of industries who dictate what will be programmed into the algorithms that make up what we call “artificial intelligence.”

What we have previously considered “bad”—for example banks cheating customers, insurers selling junk insurance, industries polluting our rivers and our air—is OK as far as technology is concerned. It doesn’t care.

In the end those ‘bad’ disruptors may be seen as normal by the rest of us because AI will have been the instrument powerful people have used to destroy culture, in the workplace and in society, and along with it our ethical standards. Ethical standards are how we view those things as bad.

Just as the spinning jenny and the railroad of the 19th century and the internal combustion engine of the 20th had no emotions or ethics, neither do the technologies of today.

My friends often assure me that “the market” will control AI. I reply that the market is only a system of technology, like AI and, frankly, it, also, doesn’t give a damn.

It’s not whether we can limit AI that matters. The real question is can we control those that control AI? Put another way: Is our culture, in the workplace or in society, with its ethical norms, robust enough in this age of kleptocracy and rapacious corporate greed?

That’s for us to decide, not AI

Bob Murray, Fortinberry Murray, Principal

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