This page is from the late 20th Century; most recently revised January 2019

For my latest views, see also my blogposts on artificial intelligence and on ethics.

AI Ethics: Artificial Intelligence, Robots, and Society

JB on Channel 4 News,
          January 2015Photo via Roger K. Moore

Everyone should think about the ethics of the work they do, and the work they choose not to do.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots often seem like fun science fiction, but in fact already affect our daily lives.  For example, services like Google and Amazon help us find what we want by using AI.  Every aspect of how Facebook works is based on AI and Machine Learning (ML). The reason your phone is so useful is it is full of AI – sensing, acting, and learning about you. All these tools not only make us smarter, their intelligence is based partly on what they learn both from us and about us when we use them.  So we make the tools smarter too.

Since 1996 I have been writing about AI and Society, including maintaining this web page.  Originally I was worried because some researchers got into the news by claiming that AI or intelligent robots would one day take over the world.  The first goal of this page is to explain why that isn't going to happen.

But by 2008 the USA had more robots in Iraq (then about 9,000) than its allied countries had human troops (then about 8,500).  Also,  prominent scientists like Ron Arkin began saying we should make the robots themselves ethical, and even getting money from the US military to do that.  I've taken money from the US military too; my problem is not with that but with the claim that robots should ever be considered responsible for their actions.  The problem here is not with robots taking over the world, but with people taking over the world (or at least corrupting large parts of it) by pretending that robots are responsible. In fact people and corporations that decide how robots act. 

The fact is, robots completely belong to us. We author AI, we don't give birth to it.  People, governments and companies build, own and program robots.  Whoever owns and operates a robot is responsible for what it does.

I wrote this page because many people worry about the wrong things when they worry about AI.

It's not that there's nothing to worry about AI. It's that many people are confused about the word "intelligent" – they think it means "like a human."  Humans are intelligent, but we're also tall, and we (mostly) walk on two legs. We don't think ostriches or giraffes are human, and we shouldn't think robots are human either.  I hope that by writing this page, I can help us worry about the right things.

Why Build AI?

If some people think robots might take over the world, or if machines really are learning to predict our everything we do, or even if a president might try to put the blame on a robot for the president's own bad military decisions, then why would anyone work on advancing AI at all? 

My personal reason for building AI is simple:  I want to help people think.

Our society faces many hard problems, like finding ways to work together yet maintain our diversity. Figuring out how to avoid war, and ending the ones that already started. Learning to live truly sustainably – so our children consume no more space and time than our parents, and no more other resources than can be replaced in a lifetime – to do all that while still protecting human rights, human dignity, and human flourishing.  These problems are so hard, they might actually be impossible to solve.  But building and using AI is one way we might figure out some answers.  If we have tools to help us think, they might make us smarter.  And if we have tools that help us understand how we think, that might help us find ways to be happier, and to treat each other and everything else on our world better.

Of course, all knowledge and tools, including AI, can be used for good or for bad.  This is why it's important to think about what AI is, and how we want it to be used.  This page is designed to help people (including me) think about the ethics of AI research.

To start out with the basics: here's a Definition of Artificial Intelligence I coauthored with Jeremy Wyatt for the Children's Britannica.  And here is an interview where an American high school student asks me about studying AI.

Do we need rights for robots? No.

My students and I are among the many researchers who work on building artificial consciousness and synthetic emotions.  These aren't any more magic or deserving of ethical obligation than artificial hands or legs.  In humans consciousness and ethics are associated with our morality, but that is because of our evolutionary and cultural history.  In artefacts, moral obligation is not tied by either logical or mechanical necessity to awareness or feelings.  This is one of the reasons we shouldn't make AI responsible: we can't punish it in a meaningful way, because good AI systems are designed to be modular, so the "pain" of punishment could always be excised, unlike in nature.

Why We Shouldn't Fear AI or Robots – Machines Aren't People (or Even Apes)

As I said, I think most people are worrying about the wrong things when they worry about Robots and AI.  First, here are some reasons not to worry.

1)  AI has the same ethical problems as other, conventional artifacts.

In the mid-1990s I attended a number of talks that made me realize that some people really expected AI to replace humans.  Some people were excited about this, and some were afraid.  Some of these people were well-known scientists.  Nevertheless, it seemed to me that they were all making a very basic mistake.  They were afraid that whatever was smartest would "win", somehow.  But we already have calculators and phones that can do math better than us, and they don't even take over our pockets, let alone the world.

My friend Phil Kime agreed with me, and added that he thought the problem was that people didn't have enough direct, personal experience of AI to really understand whether or not it was human.  So we wrote one of my first published papers, Just Another Artifact: Ethics and the Empirical Experience of AI.  We argued that realistic experience of AI would help us better judge what it means to be human, and help us get over our over-identification with AI systems.  We pointed out that there are ethical issues with AI, but they are all the same issues we have with other artifacts we build and value or rely on, such as fine art or sewage plants.

We first wrote it in 1996; it eventually got partially published in 1998 in a cybernetics workshop but that didn't have very good academic credibility.  So in 2010 we got back together and rewrote it for the leading international conference in AI. The updated version is called Just an Artifact: Why Machines are Perceived as Moral Agents and is in the proceedings of The Twenty-Second International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI '11).

2)  It's wrong to exploit people's ignorance and make them think AI is human.

It is not enough for experts to understand AI.  We also have a professional obligation to communicate to everyone else.  The people who will use and buy AI should know what its risks really are.  Unfortunately, it's easier to get famous and sell robots (or cars) if you go around pretending that your robot really needs to be loved, or otherwise really is human – or super human!  In 2000 I wrote an article about this called A Proposal for the Humanoid Agent-builders League (HAL) for The Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics and (Quasi-)Human Rights at AISB 2000.  I proposed creating a league of programmers dedicated to opposing the misuse of AI technology to exploit people's natural emotional empathy.  The slogans would be things like "AI: Art not Soul" or Robot's Won't Rule

In 2000 I didn't know that the US military might try to give robots ethical obligations, so the whole paper is written is written with some humor.  But as we've made better AI, these issues have gotten more serious.  Fortunately, academics and other experts are also getting serious.  In 2010 I was one of a couple dozen people invited by two United Kingdom research councils to work on making sure robots would fit into British society. We decided to write the Principles of Robotics, the world's first national-level soft law on AI ethics.  So a bunch of the ideas in my HAL paper are now at least informal UK policy.  The five principles are:

  1. Robots should not be designed as weapons, except for national security reasons.
  2. Robots should be designed and operated to comply with existing law, including privacy.
  3. Robots are products: as with other products, they should be designed to be safe and secure.
  4. Robots are manufactured artefacts: the illusion of emotions and intent should not be used to exploit vulnerable users.
  5. It should be possible to find out who is responsible for any robot.
  6. Notice that the first three correct Asimov's laws – it's not the robot that's responsible.

For the full legal versions of the principles and their explanations, see their EPSRC web page. For an account of how they were written, see The Making of the EPSRC Principles of Robotics, from the AISB Quarterly, Issue 133, Spring 2012, pp. 14-15.  More importantly, to understand why they were written the way they were (to minimise social disruption and maximise social utility), see The meaning of the EPSRC Principles of Robotics, an articile I wrote in 2016 about the Principles as policy for the fifth anniversary of their publication (6 months after development) by the EPSRC on its webpage. The Principles of Robotics have made it into:

3)  Robots will never really be your friends.

In October 2007, I was invited to participate in a workshop called Artificial Companions in Society: Perspectives on the Present and Future at the Oxford Internet Institute.  I took the chance to write my third ethics article, Robots Should Be Slaves. In 2010, this (finally) came out as  a book chapter in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions:  Key social, psychological, ethical and design issues, a book edited by Yorick Wilks.  The idea is not that we should abuse robots (and of course it isn't that human slavery was OK!)  The idea is that robots, being authored by us, will always be owned—completely.  Building a robot is nothing like having a child.  Robots are more like novels than children. There's no chance involved unless you deliberately put the chance into it. There's no giant machinery of biology that evolved 4,000,000,000 years before you even had the idea of having a baby determining what components that baby can have.  Fortunately, even though we may need robots to have and understand things like artificial intelligence emotions, it is perfectly possible not to make them suffer from neglect, a lack of self-actualization, or their low social status in the way a person would. In fact I'd say it's an obligation; what right do we have to make a person-like thing that would be owned, not human?  Robots are things we build, and so we can pick their goals and behaviours.  Both buyers and builders ought to pick those goals responsibly.

People have trouble believing this, so I've written it again a bunch of times trying to clarify it in a bunch of different ways:

Why We Should Worry About AI Anyway

Being worried about the wrong things doesn't mean that there's nothing to worry about.  Artificial Intelligence is not as special as many people think, but it is further accelerating a rapidly-accelerating phenomenon that's been going on for about 10,000 years: human culture.  Human culture is changing almost every aspect of life on earth, particularly human society.  

4)  Human culture is already a superintelligent machine turning the planet into apes, cows, and paper clips.

One of the reasons I object to AI scaremongering is that even where the fears are realistic, such as Nick Bostrom and colleague's description of overwhelming, self-modifying superintelligence, making AI into the bogeyman displaces that fear 30-60 years into the future.  In fact, AI is here now, and even without AI, our hyperconnected socio-technical culture already creates radically new dynamics and challenges for both human society and our environment.  Bostrom writes about (among other things) a future machine intelligence autonomously pursuing a worthwhile goal might incidentally convert the planet into paper clips.  We might better think of our current culture itself as the superintelligent but non-cognizant machine – a machine that has learned to support more biomass on the planet than ever before (by mining fossil fuels) but is changing all that life (at least the large animals) into just a few species (humans, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, and cows). No one ever specifically intended to wipe out the rest of the large animals and other biodiversity on the planet, but we're doing it.   Similarly, no one specifically decided that children weren't sufficiently monitored by their parents up until the 1990s, but now childhood and parenthood have been entirely transformed in just a few decades.  These are just two consequences or our expanding cognition, and AI is very much a part of that.

In 2014 I wrote an academic book chapter about this called Artificial Intelligence & Pro-Social Behaviour.  Later I wrote a shorter blogpost with the best part (it also talks about "Artificial General Intelligence.")  These changes aren't entirely due to AI.  They're also the result of better communication brought about by mobile phones and social media, the simple fact that there are more people, and processes of cultural and legislative change.  But AI, particularly machine learning, plays a large and growing role.

5)  Big data + better models = ever-improving prediction, even about individuals.

AI and computer science, particularly machine learning but also HCI, are increasingly able to help out research in the social sciences.  Fields that are benefiting include political science, economics, psychology, anthropology and business / marketing.   As I said at the top of the page, understanding human behaviour may be the greatest benefit of artificial intelligence if it helps us find ways to reduce conflict and live sustainably.  However, knowing fully well what an individual person is likely to do in a particular situation is obviously a very, very great power.  Bad applications of this power include the deliberate addiction of customers to a product or service, skewing vote outcomes through disenfranchising some classes of voters by convincing them their votes don't matter, and even just old-fashioned stalking.  It's pretty easy to guess when someone will be somewhere these days.

As science – and commerce, and government – learns more and more, our models of human behaviour get better and better.  As our models improve, we need less and less data about any particular individual to predict what they are going to do.  So just practising good data hygiene is not enough, even if that were a skill we could teach everyone.  My professional opinion is that there is no going back on this, but that isn't to say society is doomed. What we do matters.

Think of it this way.  We all know that the police, the military, even most of our neighbours could get into our house if they wanted to.  But we don't expect them to do that.  And, generally speaking, if anyone does get into our house, we are able to prosecute them legally, and to claim any damages back from insurance.  I think our personal data should be like our houses.  First of all, we shouldn't ever be seen as selling our own data, just leasing it for a particular purpose.  This is the model software companies already use for their products; we should just apply the same legal reasoning to we humans.  Then if we have any reason to suspect our data has been used in a way we didn't approve, we should be able to prosecute.  That is, the applications of our data should be subject to regulations that protect ordinary citizens from the intrusions of governments, corporations and even friends.

You might also be interested in the courses I teach, which include AI ethics materials

More from me:

JB holding a hokey
          zapping ball thing in about 1999, T shirt says `question

For formal citations of the papers by me mentioned on these pages (and much more) see my publications page.  I also write blog posts about AI and about ethicsHere is a list of my AI / Robot ethics publications:
Other work besides formal publications on the topic:

Mostly by coincidence, I've started doing scientific work on the origins of (human) ethical behaviour

On a less related note than a lot of people think, I also write about consciousness, both machine & not.  This work came around partly because so many people associate consciousness and ethics, but do they know why?

Similarly to AI consciousness, here's some of my papers on emotions, which I also don't believe determine ethical obligation, but are clearly involved in humans' ethical intuitions:

Reminder:  HTML and bibtex for formal citations for the above papers are all available on my publications page.

More from other people:

page author: J J Bryson
photo August 2001, by Laura Kusumoto (shirt by CPSR)