Or, Why Algorithms Cant Replace Ethics
It happened, as it was going to. A self-driving Uber killed a
pedestrian. But that was just one dot among many. Facebook sharing
data with a shady company specializing in propaganda and worse,
tilting an election. Theranos revealed to be a fraud. And
Technology today is more powerful than its ever been. But it
also has a complete and total void of ethics and morals. And in
that gap, democracy, society, and the economy are going down
Hence, we see technologists approaching ethical questions in a
childlike way. Well, if robot cars save 1000 people, but they kill
999, then thats OK, right?! Wrong. The underlying belief here is
that a) the greater good is what matters most b) we know what the
greater good is. In other words, since your existence has no
inherent value, human beings are means, not ends. Means to the
greater good, whether it is convenience, speed, or growth.
The greater good then gets coded into algorithms. The algorithms
are increasingly running every last bit of our lives, for it.
Workers are managed algorithmically. Stocks are traded
algorithmically, and ads are served algorithmically, and
recommendations are made algorithmically. Cars are driven
And the greater good is rising, you might thinkGDP is growing,
life is faster and more pleasing in some ways. But it is also
meaner, nastier, dumber, and harder, isnt it? That much is
statisticsfalling life expectancy, rising loneliness, regular
school shootings, and so on. So something has gone badly wrong with
algorithmic ethicsthe greater good coded into machines that run our
lives is not in fact really making them better. The pursuit of the
greater good is somehow diminishing us. What went wrong?
The question before us today is this: can ethical
questions, questions about human goodness, ever be solved
algorithmically? Let us answer this in a roundabout way.
If they can, then we dont need judges, doctors, teachers. We dont
need parents, eithera computer program should suffice. We dont need
mentors, therapists, and friends. In fact, if algorithms can
replace human ethical judgment, then we need no social bonds
whatsoever. That sounds absurd, doesnt it? Why, though?
What is it that you do with your friends? You mull over your
ethical dilemmas, dont you? Ah, I love them. But I just dont know
if I can be with them anymore, you say, ruefully. I love the job.
But I hate the income, you lament. Your friends replies, and shares
their own. But no one is applying an algorithmthey are sipping wine
to win freedom from the strictures of ordered thinking.
What happens now, in the sharing of...