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Who Should Stop Unethical A.I.?

Many kinds of researchers — biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and so on — encounter checkpoints at which they are asked about the ethics of their research. This doesn’t happen as much in computer science. Funding agencies might inquire about a project’s potential applications, but not its risks. University research that involves human subjects is typically scrutinized by an I.R.B., but most computer science doesn’t rely on people in the same way. In any case, the Department of Health and Human Services explicitly asks I.R.B.s not to evaluate the “possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research,” lest approval processes get bogged down in political debate. At journals, peer reviewers are expected to look out for methodological issues, such as plagiarism and conflicts of interest; they haven’t traditionally been called upon to consider how a new invention might rend the social fabric. A few years ago, a number of A.I.-research organizations began to develop systems for addressing ethical impact.

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