AI and ethics are hot topics again, after having been dormant for a while. The dream of creating intelligent androids to serve us runs deep – there are countless examples in mythology from the metal servants of Hephaestus to Victorian automata – but the fear of our creations gaining consciousness and turning against us runs deep too. Modern slavery and exploitation of our fellow humans show that the urge to command and control is as old as humanity, and the ability of the powerful to deny the very consciousness of the exploited is only fading gradually. Women, children, and slaves have been designated as ‘not fully human’ for most of history, and it seems there are still plenty of people around who seem to rather like it that way.

Will robots steal all the jobs?

One issue of current concern is job losses due to automation – another age-old topic. However, there is a deep irony at the heart of the issue – the more of our ‘human’ skills that can be replaced and even improved by the use of machines, the more we are forced to face the idea that our essential humanity resides in our empathy, compassion, and ability to love and treat each other with kindness. At the same time, it may turn out that emotional labour is the most difficult to automate.

Caring for the sick, the elderly, and children are the tasks that currently command the least pay – women are often expected to perform this labour not just for no pay, but actually at a cost to themselves. (Anyone who denies the existence of a ‘gender pay gap’ claim that women ‘choose’ to damage their career chances by being foolish enough to spend time ‘caring’ instead of ‘earning’, or by entering the ‘caring’ professions rather than the ‘lucrative’ ones.) Meanwhile, stockbrokers are rapidly being replaced by algorithmic traders, and lawyers, accountants, and similar highly valued ‘analytical’ workers may find large parts of their jobs are actually very easy to automate.

Calls for a universal basic income are an attempt to bridge increasing social inequality and division. If the much hyped 4th industrial revolution is truly going to be revolutionary, it needs to do something other than build tools that keep channelling money into the pockets of the already rich and powerful, it needs to make us think about what we value in ourselves and our fellow humans and reward those values.

Objectification and control

In practice, we are probably many years away from self-aware androids, but thinking about them is beneficial if it leads us to think about how we currently exploit our – obviously conscious, intelligent, and sentient – fellow human beings and animals. The granting of citizenship to an unveiled, but otherwise unthreatening, female robot in Saudi Arabia raises many issues and people have already started asking why the female robot appears to have more rights than the Kingdom’s flesh and blood women. I can’t help wondering if the lifting of the ban on Saudi women drivers is a response to the advent of driverless cars. The topic of the potential social consequences of sex robots is too vast and complex to go into here, but whose fantasies are these robots being designed to fulfil? Would anyone buy a robot that requires its full and informed consent to be obtained before it works?

Check your attitudes

Back in the 90s, the Internet was hyped as leading the way to a new utopia where racism and sexism would vanish as we communicated in the digital rather than physical realm. We failed to stop the Internet becoming a place where commercial exploitation, social abuse, and downright theft thrived, because we assumed the technology would somehow transcend our psychology and personal politics. Already AI systems are showing they default to reflecting the worst of us – GIGO now includes bad attitudes as well as bad data – and we have to make deliberate efforts to counter this tendency. Commercial organizations continue to produce racially insensitive or otherwise lazy and stereotypical advertising campaigns even in this day and age, so it seems unlikely that they can be trusted to be socially responsible when it comes to biases in datasets.

A true revolution

A true 4th industrial revolution would be one which places a premium on the best of our human values – caring, empathy, kindness, sharing, patience, love. If these become more valuable, more highly prized, more lucrative than the values of profit for the sake of profit, domination, objectification, exploitation, division, command, and control, then we will have moved towards a better world. At the moment, we are still largely building tools to enhance the profits of the already wealthy, with all the continuation of existing social problems that implies. The companies benefiting the most from advances in AI are the ones that can already afford them.

If this ‘4th industrial’ change leads us to a world in which social injustices diminish and the people who care – for each other, for the young, the old, the sick – become the most highly prized, respected, and rewarded in society, only then will it merit the title ‘revolution’.

Image: The Compassion Machine by Jonathan Belisle from the Ensemble Collective.