Indulging AI

Microsoft and IBM have signed the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” pledging to the Vatican that their AI will protect the planet and its people.

History is filled with secular leaders cutting such deals in exchange for the Church’s sanction for fighting a war newly deemed “holy,” or sometimes simply its benign disregard when said leaders’ actions came nowhere near qualifying for such a description. 

None of these agreements are binding, of course. Circumstances change, indulgences are recalculated, and yesterday’s blessed sons and daughters become tomorrow’s apostates.

The only mitigating factor is a signatory’s fear of eternal damnation (though that, too, has been negotiable).

So what will come of the resolution?

Microsoft and IBM will be bound to “safeguard the rights of all humankind” and ascribe to a “duty of explanation” so we peasants understand not only the function of AI algorithms but their purpose and objectivies,” according to a story in the Financial Times.

In exchange, their crusades to invent AI are hereby blessed.

I’ve come to believe that corporations of all stripes need a C-suiter in charge of ethics and morality; a Chief Morality Officer who functions like a priest or rabbi, providing operational leadership with perspectives on the implications of their decisions beyond the pale of material measures. 

Our newfound love of “purpose” in corporate behavior makes such a position all the more relevant, though I don’t think it should be filled by some glorified marketer or management consultant who only speaks to the canon of consumer trend research. Companies need fewer mission statements and communications strategies, and more real-time interpretive insights into what their behaviors mean to people and the planet.

Similarly, I don’t see this position having any enforcement authority, so less Spanish Inquisition and more kindly parish priest who helps families work though the challenges of daily life.

There’s a broad chasm between the Rome Call for AI Ethics and their implementation, and without establishing any sort of translation or application mechanism within the companies its realization will be left to press releases and other “thought leadership” about its successes. They’re not really “bound” to do anything, contrary to the language of the document.

Any failures to embrace it will doom the companies to hell, of course, so that’ll be some consolation.

[This essay originally appeared at DaisyDaisy]

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator