Developments in artificial intelligence are now “a runaway train” and urgently require the attention of philosophers and other humanists, a professor has argued.
Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, spoke on “Humans and Artificial Intelligence – What Happens Next?” at an alumni event in London.
“A ‘singularity’ is demonstrably coming when our attempts to enhance our own intelligence are outstripped by artificial entities,” he told the audience. “Yet there are no such things as neutral technologies. We have to ask what interests they serve.”
Speaking to Times Higher Education after his talk, Professor Kingwell spelled out the implications for universities.
Developments in AI such as “the consumer-tailored version of an algorithm that helps you find your learning style” and the delivery of courses through “personal connections to modules on computers” were already threatening to “put a lot of lecturers out of work, because you wouldn’t need them to be replicating the same material to physical audiences…The endgame would be a scenario where you don’t have to speak to a human at all: you just order your modules online and get your results. Global programmes could be created in some sweatshop.”
Although he was “persuaded by the balance-of-outcomes argument about driverless cars”, Professor Kingwell said that other recent trends in AI were “a bit like a runaway train”, which, “on balance, I feel negative about”. He was particularly concerned about applications in medical diagnostics, where “the algorithms are in effect used for triage and control of access to complex and expensive surgery. It seems to me very tricky to allow that to happen without reflection.”
Here, philosophers and other humanists, Professor Kingwell went on, could draw on a long tradition of asking ethical and political questions about changing technologies, “nuclear weapons, drugs, even handguns. Many, if not most, hospitals now have bioethics committees. [However unstoppable present trends seem] you can still have a conversation and push back.” Such humanistic thinking could also contribute to the regulatory framework governing “the necessary limitations on certain kinds of programmes and their applications, just as we would ask similar questions about a new pharmaceutical”.
Yet Professor Kingwell, who is writing an academic handbook about the ethics of AI, often found himself frustrated by funding priorities within universities.
“The technical AI project at UT has been given millions of dollars,” he explained. “We asked for thousands of dollars for our ethics project, and we were given nothing. It’s familiar: the humanities are perceived to be both costless and useless, but we’ve got something to contribute, too; and we might need some money, because we want smart people to come and talk to us.”