IEEE launches ethical design guide for AI developers

We must "move beyond both the fear and the uncritical admiration," IEEE says

As autonomous and intelligent systems become more pervasive, it is essential the designers and developers behind them stop to consider the ethical considerations of what they are unleashing.

That’s the view of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which this week released for feedback its second Ethically Aligned Design document in an attempt to ensure such systems “remain human-centric”.

“These systems have to behave in a way that is beneficial to people beyond reaching functional goals and addressing technical problems. This will allow for an elevated level of trust between people and technology that is needed for its fruitful, pervasive use in our daily lives,” the document states.

Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritising Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems is the result of a year’s worth of discussion by around 250 people from academia, industry and government. It covers a range of related topics including the transparency of autonomous systems, data privacy, algorithmic bias, mixed reality and ‘ethically driven nudging’, the overt or hidden manipulations by intelligent systems designed to influence the behaviour or emotions of a user

A number of Australia-based academics were involved in the document – which is open for feedback from the public until March – including University of Sydney software engineering Professor Rafael Calvo.

“Recent advancements in artificial intelligence have begun to transform what was once only science-fiction into plausible reality. However, defining what exactly ‘right’ and ‘good’ are in a digital future is a question of great complexity that places us at the intersection of technology and ethics,” Calvo said.

“Throwing our hands up in air crying ‘it’s too hard’ while we sit back and watch technology careen us forward into a future that happens to us, rather than one we create, is hardly a viable option.

“This publication is a truly game-changing and promising first step in a direction – which has often felt long in coming – toward breaking the protective wall of specialisation that has allowed technologists to disassociate from the societal impacts of their technologies.”

Calvo added that the publication will mean those involved in intelligent systems would take responsibility for the consequences of their work.

“It will demand that future tech leaders begin to take responsibility for and think deeply about the non-technical impact on disempowered groups, on privacy and justice, on physical and mental health, right down to unpacking hidden biases and moral implications. It represents a positive step toward ensuring the technology we build as humans genuinely benefits us and our planet,” he said.

The IEEE noted that Ethically Aligned Design is not a code of conduct or a professional code of ethics.

The goal is to “move beyond both the fear and the uncritical admiration regarding autonomous and intelligent technologies,” the group said, and give technologists the education, training, and empowerment to prioritise ethical considerations.

“We believe explicitly aligning technology with ethical values will help advance innovation with these new tools while diminishing fear in the process,” the IEEE said.

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