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Navigating The Ethical Perils And Promises Of Artificial Intelligence

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The Biden administration announced Wednesday a new website dedicated to artificial intelligence, a place where people can stay up-to-date on the federal government’s developments in artificial intelligence. This news comes as Dr. Peter Hershock from the East-West Center prepares for a virtual discussion on the subject Thursday.

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Dr. Peter Hershock is the director of the center’s Asian Studies Development Program and recently released a book about artificial intelligence, "Buddhism and Intelligent Technology: Toward a More Humane Future."

Hershock says our development of artificial intelligence will eventually lead to the ethical singularity, "a point at which evaluating competing value systems and conceptions of humane intelligence take on infinite value/significance."

In his book, he looks back at historic schools of thought such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Socrates to find insight, to help navigate the conflicting values of artificial intelligence.

He spoke with The Conversation’s Russell Subiono about the perils and promises of artificial intelligence in our current lives and in the future. Here are some highlights: 

On the presence of artificial intelligence in our daily lives

It's totally ubiquitous, it's everywhere around us. So when you go online and you do a Google search or you're using a search engine of your choice, those are algorithmically driven. So there's an artificial intelligence behind that system making recommendations to you depending on your search. The way in which that's done is they're comparing your search history--you as an individual, your search history--with other people who have done similar types of searches. So it'll start throwing information at you, possibilities for recommendations that people like you have enjoyed, or they hit, or they followed through. And it's adaptive, so the system gets better and better at making recommendations for us. So that's a totally ubiquitous thing. It's everywhere that we go. Same thing with news feeds from Facebook, from Instagram accounts... all those are algorithmically mediated.

On the power of artificial intelligence in the economy

I think we really need to start rethinking what the economy is doing and how commerce is working nowadays, because it really is all about gaining more information about us so that these artificial systems are able to predict and then produce the kind of behaviors that the people who run the platforms and are running the businesses want them to do. It's extraordinarily powerful, but we need to be concerned about that. Because the epistemic power, the power to know what we want, what we fear, what we can be induced to purchase, is also a power to change how we become the people that we are.

On voting behavior in the 2016 and 2020 elections

Something that I like to focus on is the way in which artificial intelligence and these systems have been used to shape voting behaviors. So if you look at the 2016 and 2020 elections, 30% of the posts from either campaign side, Democratic or Republican in the U.S., were actually generated by conversational robots, not by human beings, in order to influence people's behavior. What they're drawing on is detailed things like, "Do you have health insurance or not?" Or, "Do you have prescriptions for somebody who's in palliative care for cancer?" That makes you vulnerable to certain kinds of information from certain parties, and the algorithms are putting the picture together to decide, "Okay, how do we shape this person's voting behavior?"

So I think that really calls into question something as basic as our governmental principle of free and fair elections and causes us as citizens to say, well maybe we need a new kind of fourth estate. So the fourth estate used to be the media against the political powers. But now maybe we need a new kind of fourth estate where we use the same technologies in order to be able to get the kind of connectivity that we need to be active resistance to the commercial or state uses of our data, which are really traces of our own intelligence. To take our intelligence and then use that to shape our behavior, I think we really need to be wary of that.

On ways to protect ourselves from artificial intelligence

I did a talk at American University in D.C. last month and one of the students asked me, "So what can I do?"

I said, there are a couple hundred million college and university students around the world. What if all the college and university students around the world got together and said, for one week we're not going to use any social media. We're going to take our favorite platforms, whether it's Alibaba, Tencent, Google, Facebook, whatever it is, and say, "We want you to devote 10% of your revenue to meeting the UN's Global Millennium Development Goals. And we're going to keep playing with your data until you get on board with doing something that's good for the world and not just for yourself as corporations." It's a huge amount of power, but it takes collective action.

On a movie that resembles realistic AI

The first movie that came to mind was Her. And the reason why I think that one comes close is that it's not based on a robot. We don't have anything like the robotics that you see in a movie like Ex Machina, certainly nothing like the tech in The Matrix or a Terminator film. But in Her, it's an app on the guy's smartphone and the seduction is conversational. She gets to predict better and better what he wants to hear, how to feed it back to him. They develop this relationship that from his side is really emotional. And I think that's sort of where we're heading with this. As these technologies get better and better at voice recognition, and at reading human emotions, and simulating human emotions, we're going to have these sort of simulated friends. That might be an interesting thing to kind of contemplate, but if you imagine socializing children with digital friends and the role that they would play, I think that gets us thinking about, "Do we really want to turn over the socialization process to digital avenues?"

This story aired on The Conversation on May 5, 2021.

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