The ethics of artificial intelligence

Digital technologies hold great promise for the economy and society. But some recent developments, such as face recognition, also present ethical dilemmas. The challenges are immense for Switzerland, which is one of the leading developers of artificial intelligence (AI).

This content was published on December 10, 2020 - 14:00
Luigi Olivadoti (Illustration)

Digitalisation has led to an explosion of new ethical challenges: the loss of jobs due to automation, filter bubbles, data protection, face recognition, deepfake videos, cyber security and most disturbingly, the misuse of AI technologies.

It is hard to imagine what would happen if AI fell into the wrong hands. If you take the issue of "killer robots", for example, the international community cannot agree on whether to introduce strict rules to control their use. Talks at the United Nations in Geneva on regulating lethal autonomous weapons have so far had limited results.

Such weapons do not yet exist, but campaigners say they could be deployed on the battlefield in just a few years given the rapid advances and spending on AI and other technologies.

Switzerland has made huge strides in the field of AI - software which teaches itself to think and make decisions like a human, and which learns by processing huge amounts of data.

Numerous Swiss start-ups are developing so-called intelligent systems, in the form of robots, apps or digital assistants, intended to make our lives easier. But the companies face the constant ethical dilemma of where to draw the line when it comes to selling their technologies. This predicament is particularly acute for those involved in researching technologies and selling them. Swiss universities, for example, participate in projects funded by the US military – from aerial surveillance cameras to autonomous reconnaissance drones.

Switzerland takes a position

Switzerland strives to be at the forefront of the movement to shape ethical standards for the use of AI. But what does Switzerland have to do to become an AI pioneer? One interesting initiative is the creation of the “Swiss Digital Trust Label” aimed at boosting user confidence in new technologies. The idea is to give users more information on digital services, thereby creating transparency and ensuring respect for ethical values. “We want to help guarantee that ethical and responsible behaviour also becomes a competitive advantage for businesses,” says Niniane Paeffgen, director of Swiss Digital Initiative, the organisation behind the “Swiss Digital Trust Label”.

The need for regulations and clear definitions of the ethical limits is undisputed. Switzerland’s Federal Council (executive body) has set up an interdepartmental working group on Artificial Intelligence which adopted AI guidelines at the end of November 2020.

“It is important that Switzerland utilises the opportunities of AI to the full,” says the working group’s recommendation to the Federal Council. “We have to establish the best possible framework conditions that allow Switzerland play a leading role in research, development and application of AI. At the same time, the risks have to be addressed and effective measures introduced.”

Different perceptions of ethics

Following calls for global binding regulations, the European ParliamentExternal link has also established a committee to examine the opportunities and risks of AI. At the end of 2018, the European Commission’s expert group presented a first draft of its Ethics GuidelinesExternal link. Numerous other guidelines and expert opinions exist on the issue. However, a systematic analysis conducted by the Health Ethics and Policy Lab at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich found that no single ethical principle was common to all of the 84 reviewed documents on ethical AI.

Given the considerable differences between ethical principles of individual states, it is uncertain whether common international AI regulations will ever be agreed upon. However, five principles were mentioned in more than half of the 84 reviewed documents: transparency, justice and fairness, preventing harm, responsibility, data protection, and privacy.

A new AI research centre has just been established at ETH Zurich, which serves as a hub for various research departments to work closer together. Alexander Ilic, head of the centre, says he wants to put people at the centre of its AI work.

“The person who designs something new carries a certain responsibility. Hence, it is important to us that we help shape this dialogue and let our European values influence the development of AI applications,” Ilic said in an interview in November.

The most important argument in favour of AI is probably that it makes our lives easier and saves time. At best, AI can even save lives,. The Swiss rescue agency Rega, is testing an autonomous rescue drone that uses AI to locate people lost in the Swiss Alps.

The European Parliament’s expert group meanwhile estimates that AI can help reduce global greenhouse emissions by 1.5-4% by 2030. This would be roughly what the global aviation industry produces in greenhouse emissions.

“Transforming the energy, food and automotive industries as well as our living habits will be very challenging,” said the report by the federal working group on AI. “As a key technology, AI will play an important role in taking up these challenges.”

And the Covid-19 pandemic has also been influential in the field of AI, with numerous services being digitalised overnight. This led to an increase in the use of AI in our everyday lives, such as robots that can disinfect schools or hospitals.

Fear of job loss

Yet many people remain highly critical about AI. “Artificial intelligence is either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity," the British physicist Stephen Hawking once said.

Critics of “killer robots” fear that AI and robots would not only threaten jobs, but also humans. Societies are growing more and more sceptical about AI, while the industry is in the midst of a technological revolution. Big data, AI, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printers have changed the skills required from employees as more simple jobs are delegated to machines.

It is likely therefore that AI will replace humans at the workplace sooner rather than later. Research has shown that automated systems can do half of the current jobs more quickly and efficiently than humans.

Swiss researcher Xavier Oberson proposes to tax the use of robots if they perform jobs that have traditionally been done by humans. He suggests that funds generated by such a tax could go towards financing social security, as well as training for the unemployed.

But where do consumers stand in this debate? They often have reservations about AI applications. According to studies, they are not so concerned by AI eliminating or controlling mankind, but more about the protection of their data. For this reason, AI producers are increasingly under pressure to make products that are transparent for users.

This is one of the goals of the new ETH Zurich centre, says Alexander Ilic: “We want to show in dialogue with the public what AI can achieve. There are many tangible examples, such as what is happening in medicine and digital health which is easy to understand and brings many positive changes. We want to prove that artificial intelligence supports people and does not replace them.”

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