The AI Ethics Challenge

A few years ago, CNNs were understood by only a handful of PhDs. Today, companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft are snapping up AI majors from universities around the world and putting them toward efforts to consumerize AI for the masses. At the moment, tools like Microsoft’s Cognitive Services, Google Cloud Vision and WinML are placing this power in the hands of line-of-business software developers.

But with great power comes great responsibility. While being a developer even a few years ago really meant being a puzzle-solver who knew their way around a compiler (and occasionally did some documentation), today with our new-found powers it requires that we also be ethicists (who occasionally do documentation). We must think through the purpose of our software and the potential misuses of it the way, once upon a time, we anticipated ways to test our software. In a better, future world we would have ethics harnesses for our software, methodologies for ethics-driven-development, continuous automated ethics integration and so on.

Yet we don’t live in a perfect world and we rarely think about ethics in AI beyond the specter of a robot revolution. In truth, the  Singularity and the Skynet takeover (or the Cylon takeover) are straw robots that distract us from real problems. They are raised, dismissed as Sci Fi fantasies, and we go on believing that AI is there to help us order pizzas and write faster Excel macros. Where’s the harm in that?

So lets start a conversation about AI and ethics; and beyond that, ML and ethics, Mixed Reality and ethics, software consulting and ethics. Because through a historical idiosyncrasy it has fallen primarily on frontline software developers to start this dialog and we should not shirk the responsibility. It is what we owe to future generations.

I propose to do this in two steps:

1. I will challenge other technical bloggers to address ethical issues in their field.  This will provide a groundwork for talking about ethics in technology, which as a rule we do not normally do on our blogs. They, in turn, will tag five additional bloggers, and so on.

2. For one week, I will add “and ethicist” to my LinkedIn profile description and challenge each of the people I tag to do the same. I understand that not everyone will be able to do this but it will serve to draw attention to the fact that “thinking ethically” today is not to be separated from our identity as “coders”, “developers” or even “hackers”. Ethics going forward is inherent in what we do.

Here are the first seven names in this ethics challenge:

I want to thank Rick Barraza and Joe Darko, in particular, for forcing me to think through the question of AI and ethics at the recent MVP Summit in Redmond. These are great times to be a software developer and these are also dark times to be a software developer. But many of us believe we have a role in making the world a better place and this starts with conversation, collegiality and a certain amount of audacity.

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