Ethics are in short supply when they’re needed most


A fascinating debate is unfolding in the nascent field of artificial intelligence about the fundamental building blocks of this new technology. At the heart of the debate is ethics – and how to build it into these new AI systems.

Attempts to introduce algorithms to help judges make less emotive or prejudiced sentences has resulted in rulings that have shocked the organisers, in some instances in the United States, by being more prejudiced and sentencing black defendants more harshly.

The problem is the underlying assumptions can be prejudicial, it seems. While computer scientists assumed the base statistics of incarceration (in which black men in America are disproportionately arrested and convicted than other race groups) actually made things worse because the algorithm assumed the worst.

Scientists have been befuddled at some of seemingly obvious tenants of human consciousness – fairness, ethics, etc – are so hard to get an AI to understand. It turns out our education and upbringing play a huge role in determining the soundness of our moral universe.

Watching South African politics for the last few months, or years, demonstrates how easily ethics can be misunderstood, or misdirected. That Andile Lungisa has somehow managed to walk out of jail after just two months is a travesty of justice by any standard. There is video footage of him smashing a jug over DA councillor Rayno Kayser’s head, then running away like an awkward Borat. He smashed a glass jug over a man’s head. The subsequent footage shows a bedraggled Kayser with his bloodied, bandaged head and his white shirt stained red.

This is just purely criminal. It’s assault. It’s also smashing a glass jug, which lacerated Kayser’s skull, over someone’s head. This is not a figure to validate, to lift on people’s shoulders when he gets out of jail after purportedly serving a sixth of his sentence, reduced from two years to one by a presidential pardon, as luck would have it.

This is the ruling party of South Africa. Over the weekend, the ANC’s highest decision-making body has been debating whether its highest-ranking officials – read secretary-general Ace Magashule – should step aside because he’s now actually facing some pretty serious criminal charges.

I can’t actually believe this is the pinnacle of the local news agenda, apart from the daily updates about how soon South Africa’s second wave has hit us. So instead of solving our very real problems, we’re marooned in a never-ending repeat of a Fawlty Towers episode.

Four different legal opinions gave different versions of whether a person holding public office (or an ANC position) should step aside, especially when actually facing fraud and corruption charges. It’s called honour Ace. And integrity.

We have very real problems, which were there before the lockdown broke everything, and the leaders of the ruling party are locked in an internecine power struggle. Nero had nothing on the ANC when it comes to fiddling while everything burns.

That is how low the once glorious ANC has sunk, that its highest office bearers have completely forgotten what honour and dignity look like. They have become such looting criminals that they cannot see anything wrong with stealing money from poor people how are still forced to live under asbestos roofs. And all with no shame.

Thankfully these nascent AI consciousnesses are not being taught about ethical behaviour from the ANC.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail.


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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