7 intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating rapidly. 

AI systems now help run entire factories and cities, working in the background to make decisions and handle routine processes that used to be done by humans or by human-run systems. 

It’s clear that AI is an enormous benefit in many ways. 

But the growth of AI also poses some ethical and moral dilemmas that we need to face before wholeheartedly embracing this new leap forward. 

Let’s take a look… 

1) What jobs replace the jobs that disappear? 

First of all in terms of the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is the issue of unemployment. 

As machine learning and AI systems replace more and more jobs from the medical industry to manufacturing, what happens to the humans who used to do this work?

Take the trucking industry in the United States for example: 3.5 million Americans drive trucks. 

What happens when self-driving trucks eliminate 90% of them?

They can’t all become fleet operators or AI engineers

And not all can be retrained to a different profession, especially as more and more professions become automated and AI-run as well. 

The idea of UBI (Universal Basic Income) has been floated as one solution.

However this still doesn’t fully resolve many of the questions that remain including the depression and frustration that many experience when out of work or when missing a defined purpose in their lives. 

2) How does depending on machines and having relationships with them change us as human beings?

The next of the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is the question of how machines affect us as human beings. 

The more we spend time with machines and building relationships with machine systems, the more it alters how we think of ourselves and our nature.  

As Christina Pazzanese writes at Harvard

“We will frequently interact with machines as if they are humans; whether in customer service or sales. 

“While humans are limited in the attention and kindness that they can expend on another person, artificial bots can channel virtually unlimited resources into building relationships.” 

The 2013 film Her by Spike Jonez examined just how strong and influential a relationship with a machine could become, and this is likely to become an increasingly dominant question, especially as humans become more socially distant and spend more time online. 

“As the main character Theodore says when asked if “you’re dating your computer?”

“She’s not just a computer.”

3) What happens if AI begins becoming conscious (singularity)?

The next of the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is what happens if AI becomes conscious. 

This idea, known as “singularity” has fascinated science fiction writers, thinkers and ethicists for decades now. 

The basic idea is that machines become so smart that they actively seek to survive and dominate humans, including if necessary by use of deadly force. 

Even disconnecting machines and shutting down software at that point would, hypothetically, not work, since the machines would have already have made backup plans and servers after having run subroutines which calculated the possibility of this as a possible human defense.

The idea of singularity and AI becoming stronger than human beings may still sound a bit like science fiction, but it’s certainly one future possibility in very advanced and interlinked AI systems which begin to override human input. 

4) What happens if AI systems are used to discriminate and harm against groups?

The next of the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is the question of what they’re used for. 

AI has applications and uses in almost every area of human life. 

But it could also be programmed to discriminate in many ways based on class, race, health status, financial elements or even political or religious beliefs. 

Unlike human beings who might have mercy when carrying out a genocide or mass persecution, an AI programmed with malicious intentions would have no reason to rise up against its prime directive to eliminate “bad” people or a “bad” group which it has been programmed to do. 

This could certainly be feasible in the future.

AI is definitely already changing how wars are fought and how enemies are killed. 

We can already see how AI run drones are used to kill large numbers of soldiers around the world in conflict zones, also mistakenly killing civilians in many instances. 

Most recently, killer robots are already being used on the battlefield in Ukraine to help turn the tide of the bloody war in favor of Kiev.

5) How can AI be reined in as a tool of totalitarian surveillance and social control? 

Next up in the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is how to keep it out of the hands of totalitarian regimes. 

AI is extremely effective at monitoring and surveillance. 

With the wrong intentions or totalitarian goals, a government, extremist group or even corporation could do enormous damage. 

We already know that AI systems are used extensively to monitor and censor online speech, particularly in countries like China. 

How much more could this develop and come to formerly “free” nations and what effect would it have?

Cracking down on hateful speech or speech that incites violence would seem like an advantage to some, while the drawbacks of having a machine decide who can speak or not is clearly a real danger. 

6) How can we decide between human judgment or the conclusions of AI in critical situations? 

Next up in the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is the issue of decision-making more generally. 

What happens in a critical situation where AI must make a decision such as a surgery procedure?

What about deciding who gets to stay on life support or be unplugged when the power goes down during a major natural disaster and there’s only generator power for one person to remain plugged in?

How can we decide whether to turn over judgment to AI or to leave it to fallible human beings?

Are there some things that can’t be replaced that humans do or is almost everything, even ethical decisions, ultimately reducible to an algorithm of some kind

These are questions which become more urgent as time goes by and the power of AI grows. 

7) What happens in a future where humans increasingly merge with AI systems and transhumanism becomes more common? 

Lastly in terms of the intriguing ethical dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence is transhumanism. 

This is the ideology of fusing humans and machines and essentially “transcending” human nature has been around for over a century and even examined by science fiction writers like HG Wells. 

The many benefits of bringing human and machine together tend to be quite utopian and don’t get much into the many potential drawbacks. 

For one thing, what about a future scenario in which there is an apartheid society created between transhumans and humans? 

As MJ McNamee and SD Edwards note in their article for the Journal of Medical Ethics

“One possible consequence feared by some commentators is that, in effect, transhumanism will lead to the existence of two distinct types of being, the human and the posthuman. 

“The human may be incapable of breeding with the posthuman and will be seen as having a much lower moral standing.”

I, robot?

The full role of AI in the future remains to be seen. 

What is certain is that the ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries raised by AI aren’t going away anytime soon. 

Will humans become transhuman, or remain controlling operators of AI systems for the benefit of humanity? 

Will AI gain consciousness of some form and take over or will it remain a useful tool within our reach?

The questions remain to be fully answered, but what’s certain is that we live in very exciting times indeed. 


Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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