Artificial Intelligence in the Minefield of Moral and Political Issues

Who will guide teenager Tay’s growing up?

Designing a verbally interactive system like Tay the “teenager” chatbot and planting it into the Twitter maelstrom of diverse human thinking and at times aggressive passion is a great idea. The developments of the project that attracted for Microsoft Corp. so many critical remarks, in reality provided not only the artificial intelligence experts, but also social media, inter-disciplinary researchers, human rights activists and even people interested in politics,  with an extremely positive result: it provoked many important questions that were until now latent and waiting for their time to come. Some of these questions are well beyond technology. Like many other AI related discussions they are reaching into the deep waters of philosophy, ethics and ideology, and they will stay with us for unforeseeable period of time because of the awareness that core texture of our human civilization is at stake.

Tay has been pushed into the dynamic environment of the Twitter world after some training and after passing a “stress test”, but, understandably, without any pre-installed social experience that could eventually substitute for the family, street and school environment that human teenagers usually go through. The “teenager” was supposed to start from ground zero and gain experience through communicating with real humans that are already out there. How? The simplified approximation of the process would be: by receiving words and sentences from the twitter community, and, following the Microsoft Corp. designed AI program, reprocessing these words and sentences into new combinations of words and sentences.

We have to note, that a similar machine was described in 1726 by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” Part lll, Chapter V, where in the Lagado Academy, one professor has a class of forty pupils working from a machine that produces random sets of words: “Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas by his contrivance the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study. He then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty foot square, placed in the middle of the room. The superficies was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered on every square with paper pasted on them, and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions, but without any order. The professor then desired me to I observe, for he was going to set his engine at work. The! pupils at his command took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the lads to read the several lines softly as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the engine was so contrived that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.” Using this machine, that teacher claimed, anyone could write a book on philosophy or politics. And also tweets, we could add, upgrading that invention to the 21 century social media standards.


Year 1726: The Lagado Academy version of Tay the Chatbot

Tay the Chatbot got viral in the media all over the world. Gloriously shining in the limelight by spewing colourful words “feminists”, “Holocaust” or “kush” and even engaging in the 2016 presidential race with vigorous support for D. Trump, Tay left there only very modest space for the two other parties: its creators, and the Twitter users who “chatted” with her. Thus strongly supporting the illusion that in the whole performance there are three actors: Tay, Microsoft  Corp., and the tweeting community.

Which is not true.

The actors are only two, and the one who in reality does not exist, is Tay herself.

As we all know well, at this stage of AI advance, and under the given circumstances, Tay cannot have comprehensive self awareness features, let alone personal integrity with moral judgments based on individual experience (whatever that could mean in the case of an AI system) to be commented.

At the current point of time Tay represents nothing but the designers of its computer AI program.  As Peter Lee – Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research, stated: “Tay is now offline and we’ll look to bring Tay back only when we are confident we can better anticipate malicious intent that conflicts with our principles and values.”

And that makes all the difference

We can, for now, leave aside the dilemma, when more consistent machine thinking comes, whether rewriting lines of code could be considered an AI equivalent of lobotomy or not. It is too early for that now.

But, in the real case of Tay the Chabot, which is evolving in real time with millions of real people following the event, we must very bluntly ask now the unavoidable question:

Who will be entitled to precisely formulate (in details deep enough to get transcribed into computer lines of code) the meaning of what Peter Lee referred to as “our principles and values”? And, given the nature of Twitter, for example,  such sets of “instructions” or “preferences” to be built into Tay’s algorithms, must necessarily include consideration about thousands of sensitive issues of political, ethnic, cultural, religious, etc. character, with numerous nuances so controversial that the case of being “for” or “against” Trump might turn out to be one of the easiest to program.

This is not an innocent theoretical question. In the whole history of humankind ideological constructions and religions have been polarizing the world by their Gods imposing differing definitions of “good” and “bad”, or “right” and “wrong”. People and armies gathered under their different standards to fight, and are still fighting even today, killing each other for what each side believes is the “right cause”.


So, who is supposed to write the holy scriptures for the era of Artificial Intelligence, and  play the part of God?


About lubomir todorov

The years of work and studies I have spent in countries of diverse anthropological, political and cultural realities like Japan, Australia, Russia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Czechia, and my numerous visits across the globe, were abundant in meetings and conversations with not only politicians, government officials and businessmen, but also people of different existential background, ethnicity, education and profession, philosophy and religion, social status and political inclination: aboriginal painters in Australia, US generals, Japanese Buddhist and Shinto priests, Majesties and members of Royal families, Russian scientists, street Mapuche musicians in Chile, British parliamentarians, Indian philosophers, Czech university professors, CEOs of top Japanese corporations, Chinese social sciences researchers, Dutch entrepreneurs - to mention just a few. Over time all this primary data, intertwined with the everyday inflow of information about human activities all over the world and their real-time consequences, were re-assimilated in my mind through the tools of philosophy, international relations, ethics, biology, economics, history and political sciences to gradually constitute a distinct resolution to re-examine my understanding about politics and the nature of human society. Making all the time hard efforts to keep the methodology machine uncontaminated by ideological, political or personal prejudice, I clung to one rule: If you aspire for the beauty of truth, it is only facts and logic that matter. Questioning the viability of human social and political behaviour and the capacity of existing political systems to lead to where people want to be, I believe that sooner than later, in pursue of sustainable prosperity, our humanity will embrace its ultimate imperative of Civilizational Thinking. Human Civilization is the spiritual dimension of homo sapiens group survival strategy that urges humans to mutually defend their strategic self-interest by generating Civilizational Values; and the optimal political environment for that is Universal Future: a global multifaceted platform on which all polities in their ideological, political, national, cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, etc. diversity exist, interrelate and compete with each other on non-violence basis.
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