On Moral Awakenings

A desk with a computer monitor and keyboard. The monitor displays the words "Do more" in large font.

I have been thinking about moral awakenings. Since coming to the University of Maastricht in February 2021, I have spent a fair amount of time getting to know my colleagues in data science and machine learning. In meeting after meeting, my colleagues in these disciplines insist that “all technology is morally neutral.” They are unmoved on this point. My colleagues in philosophy, on the other hand, all roll their eyes at moral neutrality argument. One philosopher went so far as to tell me, “I refuse to engage in the discussion anymore.” Hence, my contemplations on moral awakenings.

The architype I keep coming back to is Victor Frankenstein. Specifically, to that moment when the doctor finally pauses to consider the impact of his work on the world. He is standing there, surrounded by the pieces of an artificial being (his second, an intended companion for the first) and he suddenly realizes he will not be able to control the thing once it is released. Overcome by the horrors of what could happen, he destroys all of his work and spends the rest of his life in a fruitless pursuit of his original “monster.”

A World Shaped by Frankensteins

Perhaps it is right that the powerful things we create and release into the world should haunt us. But we are beyond the point where moral awakenings in retrospect are tolerable. We have largely accepted that the only way to know how a technology, like an AI, will perform is to release it and find out. It is no wonder, then, that our public discourse tends to focus on the monsters – the racist chatbots, the omnipresent surveillance, or the algorithms that embed our biases into hiring decisions, mortgage approvals, and prison sentences. Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that so many people wrongly call rogue technologies Frankensteins. When the creation is sufficiently powerful, the creator fades into obscurity.

Of course, the problem we face today is that there is not just one developer of AI. There is not just one Dr. Frankenstein out there building artificial intelligences. There are tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of developers in the world. And it seems that many, if not most of them, believe that technology is morally neutral. They argue that how we use technology determines our morality. There are weaknesses in this argument that bear exploring, and I will do so in the next several blog posts.

Technology Influences Us Even Without Using It

For now, I ask you, dear reader, to consider the technology around you. How does it affect your life or livelihood? What does the technology make possible even before you use it – the knife in your kitchen, the shoes on the floor, the computer in your pocket. What is possible now that would not be without those pieces of technology? How does the mere availability of technology shape your view of the world? How has technology shaped the destiny of the human race over thousands of years?

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