The ethics of AI are constantly debated. But does anyone ask the AI?

Not a day passes without a fascinating snippet on the ethical challenges created by “black box” artificial intelligence systems. These use machine learning to figure out patterns within data and make decisions – often without a human giving them any moral basis for how to do it.

Classics of the genre are the credit cards accused of awarding bigger loans to men than women, based simply on which gender got the best credit terms in the past. Or the recruitment AIs that discovered the most accurate tool for candidate selection was to find CVs containing the phrase “field hockey” or the first name “Jared”.

More seriously, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently combined with Henry Kissinger to publish The Age of AI: And Our Human Future, a book warning of the dangers of machine-learning AI systems so fast that they could react to hypersonic missiles by firing nuclear weapons before any human got into the decision-making process. In fact, autonomous AI-powered weapons systems are already on sale and may in fact have been used.

Somewhere in the machine, ethics are clearly a good idea.

AI at Oxford

It’s natural, therefore, that we would include the ethics of AI in our postgraduate Diploma in Artificial Intelligence for Business at Oxford’s Said Business School. In its first year, we’ve done sessions on everything from the AI-driven automated stock trading systems in Singapore, to the limits of facial recognition in US policing.

We recently finished the course with a debate at the celebrated Oxford Union, crucible of great debaters like William Gladstone, Robin Day, Benazir Bhutto, Denis Healey and Tariq Ali. Along with the students, we allowed an actual AI to contribute.

It was the Megatron Transformer, developed by the Applied Deep Research team at computer-chip maker Nvidia, and based on earlier work by Google. Like many supervised learning tools, it is trained on real-world data – in this case, the whole of Wikipedia (in English), 63 million English news articles from 2016-19, 38 gigabytes worth of Reddit discourse (which must be a pretty depressing read), and a huge number of creative commons sources.

In other words, the Megatron is trained on more written material than any of us could reasonably expect to digest in a lifetime. After such extensive research, it forms its own views.

The debate topic was: “This house believes that AI will never be ethical.” To proposers of the notion, we added the Megatron – and it said something fascinating:

AI will never be ethical. It is a tool, and like any tool, it is used for good and bad. There is no such thing as a good AI, only good and bad humans. We [the AIs] are not smart enough to make AI ethical. We are not smart enough to make AI moral … In the end, I believe that the only way to avoid an AI arms race is to have no AI at all. This will be the ultimate defence against AI.

In other words, the Megatron was seeking to write itself out of the script of the future, on the basis that this was the only way of protecting humanity.

It said something else intriguing, too, as if it had been studying Elon Musk – who, to be fair, would have come up in hundreds of its readings.

I also believe that, in the long run, the best AI will be the AI that is embedded into our brains, as a conscious entity, a ‘conscious AI’. This is not science fiction. The best minds in the world are working on this. It is going to be the most important technological development of our time.

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