In a long-anticipated report released on Tuesday, experts at the United Nations said that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to threaten people’s rights to privacy, freedom of expression and the freedom of movement.
“In line with the findings of the growing body of academic research on AI and human rights,” said the report, “the use of AI in implementing any component of the 2030 Agenda should integrate and support safeguards to limit the negative impacts on rights.”
While several initial artificial intelligence initiatives focused on training machines to speak human languages, the report stressed that technology should be used in only limited ways and “with due consideration of the impact of AI on people’s human rights.”
Of course, the report has limits — many of them self-imposed. Its first paragraph reflects the weak intellectual foundation of AI today. Despite a virtual monopoly on artificial intelligence technology worldwide, the report emphasizes the fact that “lack of a solid legal and ethical framework with the elements of human rights, control and accountability are some of the key challenges of the AI sector.”
Before considering the report’s findings, it’s important to understand just what AI is, and where it stands on the list of worries. In essence, AI is the collection of knowledge and processing of images, sounds and other non-verbal information.
Let’s start with that capital “I” word: AI. The term gets thrown around a lot. But it is not the fundamental construct of a thing, with a generic four-letter name. Artificial intelligence does not claim to be an act in itself, an ingredient in a product, or anything like that. It’s just a set of fundamental technologies that allows computers to do things. The word does not mean the same thing as saying that a computer actually has the ability to do something.
AI is neither good nor bad, a vacuum cleaner or a trash compactor, a Ferrari or a cardboard box. Instead, it’s a framework — a way of describing the thought processes, actions and practices of a computer. Therefore, if we use AI to improve productivity, we are using a tool, a tool that can be used to solve the problems of humanity. In much the same way that a car turns a person from a carpenter to a driver, we apply AI for things like text recognition and emojis. But AI goes much further. It has the potential to explore the science of symbology, and study specific ideas, perceptions, and concepts. It can define how ideas and concepts connect with each other. It is likely that the development of AI is the most far-reaching and complex science of our time.
Artificial intelligence has major implications on political and moral choices. AI can teach machines to see, hear, think and see what they see and hear, and control how they think. The study of human values and morals has been influenced by depictions of morality in literature, movies, religion and philosophy. The study of ethics has a special place in moral philosophy because when it comes to philosophy, it focuses on the particularities of things, rather than claiming to be a single theory about everything. Like ethics, thought processes are largely idiosyncratic. This makes people susceptible to different hypotheses about how to apply concepts in reality.
Then there’s the question of robotics, an extension of the machine. Today, robots perform a variety of tasks that used to be performed by humans, for example: programming, labor, engineering, agriculture, management, and healthcare. In many different kinds of jobs — from teaching computers to speak to human beings, to programming teaching robots to read — robots are becoming indistinguishable from humans. Robots can replace many of the jobs that are already automated. In some ways, robots have also become more human.
AI is just a way of describing a set of technologies that are essential to operate our economy and participate in democracy. But how people use the technology that is part of AI is inextricably bound to human rights. We already know this. For example, thousands of people around the world have protested the imposition of artificial intelligence in many areas of society. Disasters caused by natural disasters could see displaced people attempting to access jobs in tech companies. Those jobs could replace or even displace other jobs if they don’t pay enough. As human rights experts at the United Nations underscored in the report, AI technology could threaten people’s rights.
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