Learn the basics of algorithmic literacy

What to focus on, the risks or the goals?

The most interesting feature of ethics guidelines is that they often focus primarily on the threats and risks associated with artificial intelligence. While the goals of the guidelines, such as ‘ethically sustainable AI’, are positive in themselves, the technology is discussed in lists of principles primarily from the perspective of minimizing risks and adverse effects, as well. known as the principle of non-maleficence.

In other words, the guidelines prohibit, restrict, and prevent, but don’t give much thought to how technology could be used to promote positive goals under what’s known as the beneficence principle. For example, the guidelines may state that artificial intelligence should not be developed or used in a way that results in discrimination. No consideration is given to how artificial intelligence could be used to develop a non-discriminatory society. Concretely, the difference is significant. The range of tools to prevent discrimination by artificial intelligence solutions is totally different from using AI to prevent discrimination.

Technical solutions are produced, developed and used in complex structures, and understanding only liability issues is a challenge. Who is responsible for the technology and what activities should the regulation target? Who is responsible for artificial intelligence discrimination – the coder, the product developer or the user? It is also not entirely clear what such regulation should aim for, including a ban on algorithmic discrimination. As facial recognition algorithms demonstrate, the same algorithm can be used in both acceptable and unacceptable ways. Therefore, regulation should target the unacceptable use of the algorithm instead of the algorithm itself. However, regulating usage is not so straightforward in practice when it comes to a developing technology with a wide range of uses and applications.

It is also important to note that the mere prevention of risks and harms does not create well-being or promote other positive societal goals. The emphasis on risks and drawbacks often narrows our thinking and prevents us from seeing the opportunities. By focusing on prohibition, prevention and restriction, the possibility of using technical solutions to promote valuable goals is overlooked.

Versatile algorithms

The algorithms can be used to improve educational equality, support the learning of people with learning difficulties or develop better technical solutions for education. They can help promote minority rights, develop methods of civic engagement and safeguard democracy. They can be used to improve data protection and cybersecurity. With the help of algorithms, we can also prevent illnesses or the build-up of social problems. They can also help find solutions to huge societal problems, such as climate and energy crises, water scarcity, poverty or pandemics.

The business associated with artificial intelligence is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and its internal dynamics can be affected by ethics policies to a surprising degree. Ethics is already, at least in speeches, a factor of competitiveness – either a promoter or an obstacle to competitiveness, depending on your point of view. The ethics of artificial intelligence are also linked to many global political issues, such as the distribution of global prosperity, the polarization of technological development, the development of human rights and the rules of algorithmic warfare.

In other words, AI ethics is no longer just about assessing ethical acceptability, but also about politics, money and power. The more closely they are related to the goals of AI development, the more we need to discuss the goals of this development. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the current ethics debate is the lack of analytical exploration of the positive goals of AI and algorithm development. More than anything else, however, we may need well thought out and carefully crafted opinions on what our fundamental goals for algorithmics are.

This text is an abridged and edited version of the article ‘Algoritmien aakkoset’ originally published in a Think Corner paperback titled Älykäs huominen.

Anna-Mari Rusanen is a science philosopher specializing in AI and cognitive research. She works as an academic lecturer in cognitive science at the University of Helsinki and as a senior specialist in AI research at the Ministry of Finance. She studies the description of information processing performed by intelligent systems as well as the consequences of algorithms and the development of AI on society and ethics.

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