• Opinion
  • February 28, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Artificial intelligence: Can ethics keep pace with technological progress?

Opinion: Exponential innovation demands exponential ethics

artificial intelligence

This piece was written by Nicoletta Iacobacci, global ethics catalyst and adjunct professor at Webster University and Jinan University, and author of Exponential Ethics. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


Science fiction is becoming science fact as exponential growth in technology happens all around us. Ethics, however, has a hard time keeping pace. While new moral guidelines are defined for existing anomalies, technology surges ahead, giving rise to newer ethical debates — making it increasingly difficult to keep up with the paradigm shift of our own innovations.

We will experience progress at mammoth speed in the twenty-first century. According to futurist and computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil, at the current rate of technological innovation, the progress will be close to 20,000 years of development in a single century.

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Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence. We’ll see technological change never witnessed before : the merging of biological and nonbiological intelligence, software-based immortal humans and sentient artificial intelligence.

These new agencies will dramatically augment the human condition, magnify the economy and beget development of other powerful technologies. In response, we should focus not only on the responsibility and morality of robots’ behaviour, but also on the here-and-now accountabilities of the roboticists creating them.

Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence

Proposals also exist for developing autonomous robotic systems programmed with the intelligence to distinguish right from wrong and to evaluate moral consequences. However, an important question remains unanswered: how can robots be capable of moral or ethical reasoning when, at times, their inventors are not?

This change also poses several ethical questions. Will a new dimension of “humans” emerge? What about the perceptions of human dignity, morality and autonomy? Will these perceptions survive in their entirety?

Other emerging questions persist as well. If superintelligent robots become sentient, should we treat them like human beings and respect their consciousness? Is reprogenetics — the use of reproductive and genetic technologies to select and genetically modify embryos — the new eugenics?

Jürgen Habermas, an influential social and political thinker, addresses the question of whether post-metaphysical philosophy can contribute to the ethics of genetic intervention. He predicts that, as a first step, the general population, political public sphere and parliament may come to consider pre-implantation genetic diagnosis as morally permitted or legally tolerated if limited to a small number of well-defined cases of severe hereditary diseases.

In a next step, he assumes genetic intervention will be legalised to prevent genetic diseases. This would, in turn, lead to a grey area between negative and positive eugenics. To what extent, though, should we use technology to try to create better human beings? Who will control the outcome of this progress? Will countries have to rely on communities of people developing and using future tech to regulate themselves in the absence of new and updated ethical codes?

Contemporary transhumanists reason that NBIC (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science) should improve human and non-human natures. Techno-skeptics believe that exponentially growing technologies and practices are causing irreversible disruptions.

This leads to concern about whether human society will experience a positive outcome or be subdued to an unknown future of mechanical humans.

What are the consequences of human intervention in evolution, and can we do it responsibly?

These are just few of the questions we need to address: Can we avoid death? NBIC, prosthetics, smart drugs and brain boosters can enhance our physiology beyond current human limits. But should we really pursue this? What are the consequences of human intervention in evolution, and can we do it responsibly? Can we coexist with machines that will be smarter, faster and more intelligent than humans? Will we lose our “humanness”? Should ethics play a role? If yes, how?

Ethics must keep up with the exponential progress of technology to leapfrog and facilitate public debates among influential contemporary thinkers, scientists, engineers and prominent science fiction authors. This will be the most pioneering decade in history. Exponential technologies will lead to exponential innovation.

We should strive to take this journey, conscious of the risks we are facing, and raise a call to action for openly discussing the social repercussions these technologies could have if left only to their “makers” — a call to action in pursuit of exponential ethics. — Nicoletta Iacobacci

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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