One of the most interesting articles I have came across recently is ‘ The Ethical Agency of AI Developers’ by Tricia A. Griffin, Brian Green and Jos Welie.
While we have been hearing and speaking much about AI and the giant strides it has been making, few have been speaking about the ethical agency of the AI developers. According to Griffin, Green and Welie, this is due to the fact that the discourses on AI, machine learning (ML) and Data Science (DS) has been largely focused algorithms and the companies deploying them. Most AI developers do not realize the magnitude of the ethical decisions they make or the agency they have to make ethical decisions, especially as they handle sensitive and personal data. “What is lacking is a robust conversation with developers about the ethics of being a developer,” say the researchers.
An informative section in the article included an overview of the four sources of ethics — technical (technical, non-moral rules), individual (personal values), industry (industry defined values) and occupation (norms and rules of practice).
A key insight that the researchers state is that automated systems are created by humans (who are not morally neutral), to achieve specific ends (which again are not morally neutral) , and in turn have active and passive continuous impact (which are rarely neutral, morally). This dynamic, they say, is called affordances in philosophy and user design circles. “[T]echnology , whether in use or not, is always morally active in that its mere presence changes what people think they can or cannot do,” they state.
The paper calls for a wider discussion in AI that takes into considerations these overlooked aspects. They join the clarion call for integrating ethics education into technical and technological education curricula.
The paper also offers a number of concepts to engage with in this discussion such as: ethical chameleons, ‘idols in machine learning research’, ‘conspicuous courage’, ‘ethical agency veiled as technical agency’, ‘authority to intervene’, ‘tool neutrality’, developer ethical agency’, etc.
Ethics is key to a just and equitable society, and this begins with realizing the agency of the decision makers, who, in this case, are AI developers, along with the corporations they belong to.
Griffin, T.A., Green, B.P. & Welie, J.V.M. The ethical agency of AI developers. AI Ethics(2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43681-022-00256-3