Tech Ethics Fakeouts, MIT Media Lab Edition

An interesting, if Intercept-y, piece from The Intercept on AI ethics and the MIT Media Lab. The piece hinges upon Rodrigo Ochigame's (the author) relations with MIT's Media Lab, and its former head Joi Ito. To put it bluntly, the Ochigame came away from the experience of working in Ito's research group unimpressed. In particular, Ochigame is particualrly critical of the way in which technology lobby groups have leveraged academics into ethics-washing the AI industry's society-wide experiments in mass data capture and deployments of predictive technologies in sensitive areas, like criminal sentencing. Money quote:

the majority of well-funded work on “ethical AI” is aligned with the tech lobby’s agenda: to voluntarily or moderately adjust, rather than legally restrict, the deployment of controversial technologies. How did five corporations, using only a small fraction of their budgets, manage to influence and frame so much academic activity, in so many disciplines, so quickly?

The piece is Intercept-is-as-Intercept-does, but at the same time, it is an interesting reminder of quite how weird the AI-ethics lobby is, at least in corporate terms. Maybe just me, but even though it seems clear to anyone interested by now that big-tech companies are pretty much just like any other big company, with a technology fig-leaf, it is weird how they've taken Silicon Valley's self-image (innovation is good, we are good people, let us innovate for the benefit of society) and managed to turn ethics into something of salience in an industry-wide corporate lobbying strategy. Here, I think Ochigame is slightly wrong in his characterisation of the lobbying and regulation:

it is helpful to distinguish between three kinds of regulatory possibilities for a given technology: (1) no legal regulation at all, leaving “ethical principles” and “responsible practices” as merely voluntary; (2) moderate legal regulation encouraging or requiring technical adjustments that do not conflict significantly with profits; or (3) restrictive legal regulation curbing or banning deployment of the technology.

This is because most industries appear to advocate for “responsible practices” and codes of conduct without explicit engagement and reliance upon ethicists, and shovelling money towards academics working on ethics to green-light their work. Hence why I find AI-ethics weird: not because I'm opposed to ethics as part of business practice, but because this area, of all areas of industry, has given rise to a corporate-academic nexus that sounds a lot like Thank You For Smoking, with added references to Plato: