Ethics washing in AI. Any colour as long as it’s dark blue?

The opening discussion from the launch of the Institute for Ethics in AI in the Schwarzman Centre for Humanties in Oxford both asked many questions and left many open.

The panel event is available to watch on YouTube.

The Director recognised in his opening remarks where he expected their work to differ from the talk of ethics in AI that can become ‘matters of facile mottos hard to distinguish from corporate PR’, like “Don’t be evil.” I would like to have heard him go on to point out the reasons why, because I fear this whole enterprise is founded on just that.

My first question is whether the Institute will ever challenge its own need for existence. It is funded, therefore it is. An acceptance of the technological value and inevitability of AI is after all, built into the name of the Institute.

As Powles and Nissenbaum, wrote in 2018, “the endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.”

My second question is on the three drivers they went on to identify, in the same article, “Artificial intelligence… is backed by real-world forces of money, power, and data.”

So let’s follow the money.

The funder of the Schwarzman Centre for Humanties the home of the new Institute is also funding AI ethics work across the Atlantic, at Harvard, Yale and other renowned institutions that you might expect to lead in the publication of influential research. The intention at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, is that his investment “will reorient MIT to address the opportunities and challenges presented by the rise of artificial intelligence including critical ethical and policy considerations to ensure that the technologies are employed for the common good.” Quite where does that ‘reorientation’ seek to end up?

The panel discussed power.

The idea of ‘citizens representing citizens rather than an elite class representing citizens’, should surely itself be applied to challenge who funds work that shapes public debate. How much influence is democratic for one person to wield?

“In 2007, Mr. Schwarzman was included in TIME’s “100 Most Influential People.” In 2016, he topped Forbes Magazine’s list of the most influential people in finance and in 2018 was ranked in the Top 50 on Forbes’ list of the “World’s Most Powerful People.” [Blackstone]

The panel also talked quite a bit about data.

So I wonder what work the Institute will do in this area and the values that might steer it.

In 2020 Schwarzman’s private equity company Blackstone, acquired a majority stake in Ancestry, a provider of ‘digital family history services with 3.6 million subscribers in over 30 countries’. DNA. The Chief Financial Officer of Alphabet Inc. and Google Inc sits on Blackstone’s board. Big data. The biggest. Bloomberg reported in December 2020 that, ‘Blackstone’s Next Product May Be Data From Companies It Buys’. “Blackstone, which holds stakes in about 97 companies through its private equity funds, ramped up its data push in 2015.”

It was Nigel Shadbolt who picked up the issues of data and of representation as relates to putting human values at the centre of design. He suggested that there is growing disquiet that rather than everyday humans’ self governance, or the agency of individuals, this can mean the values of ‘organised group interests’ assert control. He picked up on the values that we most prize, as things that matter in value-based computing and later on, that transparency of data flows as a form of power being important to understand. Perhaps the striving for open data as revealing power, should also apply to funding in a more transparent, publicly accessible model?

AI in a democratic culture.

Those whose lives are most influenced by AI are often those the most excluded in discussing its harms, and rarely involved in its shaping or application. Prof Hélène Landemore (Yale University) asked perhaps the most important question in the discussion, given its wide-ranging dance around the central theme of AI and its role or effects in a democratic culture, that included Age Appropriate Design, technical security requirements, surveillance capitalism and fairness. Do we in fact have democracy or agency today at all?

It is after all not technology itself that has any intrinsic ethics but those who wield its power, those who are designing it, and shaping the future through it, those human-accountability-owners who need to uphold ethical standards in how technology controls others’ lives.

The present is already one in which human rights are infringed by machine-made and data-led decisions about us without us, without fairness, without recourse, and without redress. It is a world that includes a few individuals in control of a lot. A world in which Yassen Aslam this week said, “the conditions of work, are being hidden behind the technology.”

The ethics of influence.

I want to know what’s in it for this funder to pivot from his work life, past and present, to funding ethics in AI, and why now? He’s not renowned for his ethical approach in the world. Rather from his past at Lehman Brothers to the funding of Donald Trump, he is better known for his reported “inappropriate analogy” on Obama’s tax policies or when he reportedly compared ‘Blackstone’s unsuccessful attempt to buy a mortgage company in the midst of the subprime homeloans crisis to the devastation wreaked by an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.’

In the words of the 2017 International Business Times article, How Billionaire Trump Adviser Evades Ethics Law While Shaping Policies That Make Money For His Wall Street Firm, Schwarzman has long been a fixture in Republican politics.” “Despite Schwarzman’s formal policy role in the Trump White House, he is not technically on the White House payroll.” Craig Holman of Public Citizen, was reported as saying, “We’ve never seen this type of abuse of the ethics laws”. While politics may have moved on, we are arguably now in a time Schwarzman described as a golden age that arrives, when you have a mess.”

The values behind the money, power, and data matter in particular because it is Oxford. Emma Briant has raised her concerns in Wired, about the report from the separate Oxford Internet Institute, Industrialized Disinformation: 2020 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulationbecause of how influential the institute is.

Will the work alone at the new ethics Institute be enough to prove that its purpose is not for the funder or his friends to use their influence to have their business interests ethics-washed in Oxford blue?  Or might what the Institute chooses not to research, say just as much? It is going to have to prove its independence and own ethical position in everything it does, and does not do, indefinitely. The panel covered a wide range of already well-discussed, popular but interesting topics in the field, so we can only wait and see.

I still think, as I did in 2019, that corporate capture is unhealthy for UK public policy. If done at scale, with added global influence, it is not only unhealthy for the future of public policy, but for academia. In this case it has the potential in practice to be at best irrelevant corporate PR, but at worst to be harmful for the direction of travel in the shaping of global attitudes towards a whole field of technology.

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