Can we all be brave ethicists?

ETAIROS signal post / September 2022

Recently, it was reported that Google had dismissed a software engineer who claimed that AI chatbot is sentient. The explanation was that the engineer has violated company’s policies and that his claims were ‘wholly unfounded’. This event raises important questions for the future: are we all allowed to have a say in ethical questions as employees? How do companies create places and possibilities to discuss ethical issues? How are ethical issues related to company policies?

Ethics is a social and philosophical field of study that deals for example with moral values, models of ethics, and typologies of ethics. However, we all must solve what is wrong or right in our everyday life, both at work and in our private time. Therefore, in human life ethics is created and done without academic degrees.

Can we all be ethicists?

There has been a debate in the journal Nature on whether we all can be ethicists or not. While Sarah Franklin believes that we must raise the importance of ethical thinking and that we all should be ethicists now, Silvia Camporesi and Giulia Cavaliere argued that we cannot all be ethicists because it “could be misinterpreted to mean that expertise in ethics is no longer necessary for discussing issues pertaining to science and technology. This implication is dangerous in a society in which there is a mounting distrust of institutions and expert knowledge”.

Olivia Gambelin asks what it means to be an AI Ethicist. She claims that although there is a strong call for responsible technology, the process of putting ethics into action is still not fully understood. The professional title “AI Ethicist” helps to guide the practical implementation of ethics. However, the responsibilities and skill set of this new role are still not well defined. There might be different opinions of what it means to be an AI Ethicist. Gambelin highlighted that bravery is the fundamental characteristic of this professional role.

Bravery is a fundamental characteristic of AI ethicists

Bravery is the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty (Merriam-Webster dictionary). In general, an ethicist is someone who studies ethics, that is, the moral principles of a given culture, profession, or individual. So to act as an ethicist, one should have and show moral strength r to guide towards moral principles of a given culture, profession, or individual.

Regarding AI ethics, Resseguier and Rodrigues argued recently that AI ethics should not remain toothless. They highlighted that the real value of ethics – its ‘teeth’ – is in fact the “constantly renewed ability to see the new as it emerges”. In other words, being  brave ethicists also means to remain vigilant and to have a voice. After all, it is no individual task to consider the larger societal implications. Lance Eliot wrote in Forbes recently that “having an AI Ethics mindset and doing so integrally to AI development and fielding is vital for producing appropriate AI, including the assessment of how AI Ethics gets adopted by firms.

What does an AI ethicist actually do?

What does an AI ethicist actually do? He or she creates models, frameworks and typologies of AI ethics. For instance, “A Framework for Ethical AI at the United Nations” published last year is an example of a framework, which describes the principles of AI in the UN context. The year earlier EU published a report called “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI”, another model of AI ethics. Companies are also creating their own ethical guidelines and principles.

Would we say then that by following such guidelines and principles of ethical AI we all could be AI ethicists? We would say no, because we all are not studying and creating models of AI ethics, but we can all be brave ethical practitioners. In particular, AI designers, managers, and leaders should adopt this in their mindset.

Authors: Nadezhda Gotcheva, Nina Wessberg, Santtu Lehtinen

Photo: pixabay