Morality First, Knowledge Second?

Polina Silakova‘s fifth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores the role of morality and manners amid disruptive technologies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If you have ever travelled around Vietnam, you might have noticed at the main entrance of some schools the motto, previously ubiquitous in the communist era: “Tien hoc le, hau hoc van”. The direct meaning refers to the importance to learn proper manners in human relations first, and only then start learning other things that you would normally learn at school. Loosely it can be translated as “morality comes before knowledge”. In the past, it has served as a good call for millions of Vietnamese students and really, would not hurt anyone to be reminded of it. We are wondering if this prioritisation would still be applicable to our world of rapidly growing technologies?

The past couple of months offered us some food for thought on the evolution of business ethics in the light of technological progress.

– Facebook makes money from selling our data, which it gets in exchange for letting us share this very data free of charge – is it a fair deal? While regulators are only attempting to catch up with technicalities of this business model, Facebook continues benefiting from this knowledge gap.
– The first pedestrian died from an autonomous car approved by Uber for public roads, even with a vehicle operator behind the steering wheel. Was it human complacency with an autonomous vehicle offering a relaxing ride? Did the launch of the system happen too early, rushed by the appetite for a quicker return on investments? Or was it the lack of maturity in this field that prevented good judgement on whether the system is ready for operation?

What previously was good or bad as black and white, has now shifted into a grey area.

While in these cases Facebook users and Uber testing the driverless technology might be victims of ignorance and lack of caution, some other innovations make us concerned about the way the ethics of consumers might evolve in the future in our market society. Augmented reality and cruel video games; robots and the sex industry; more generally, robots as household servants (or slaves?). One can say that whatever people choose to do in their free time is their business, but wouldn’t it be naive to assume that the change in our own morality will have no implication for society?

A further twist to these already ambiguous scenarios came out of the study on human-robot interaction conducted by researchers from MIT and Stanford. Their experiments have shown that when people work with autonomous robots and errors occur, humans tend to blame the robots rather than themselves. Interestingly, when a success occurs, we humans take the credit more frequently than giving it to the machine. In another word, our habit to shift responsibility for mistakes from ourselves to other people remains unchanged when we get to deal with autonomous tech-friends instead of our familiar colleagues.

This poses further questions on what implications this might have for ethics in a high-tech post-capitalistic world. Who will take responsibility for decisions made by a board which consists of both humans and AI? One of the first non-human board directors – VITAL – already gets to vote in board meetings together with five human directors in a venture capital firm in Hong Kong. While VITAL only takes decisions on investments, where its skills in scanning large volumes of data come in particularly handy, we can only imagine how this might play out with advancements in deep learning. Will we still be sure that the machine is acting in the company’s interests? And if reality shows the opposite, who is to blame?

How will ethical decision-making evolve in the future? Will it be something a majority demands? Something the powerful agree on? Or something that AI would recommend as the least harmful option? What is clear is that it is becoming increasingly dependent upon how much we know about technology and its implications for society. Knowledge starts to inform morality and we should challenge ourselves to stay up to speed to make sure we take decisions that meet our moral standards.

© Polina Silakova 2018