Understanding 3 Major Artificial Intelligence Ethical Issues

January 18, 2023 • April Miller


We’ve all read the news articles and think pieces describing the limitless potential of artificial intelligence (AI). But what about the downsides? A seemingly equal number of technologists is sounding the alarm on artificial intelligence ethical issues and adding their voices to the excitement and controversy over this technology.

So what are some of those ethical issues? Do we have reason to expect that the opportunities and advantages of investing in AI development will outweigh the red flags?

1. AI Makes Decisions in a “Black Box”

The intention behind AI is that humans will be able to outsource an ever-larger number of rote tasks and decision-making responsibilities to machines. How do these artificial intelligence systems arrive at their decisions, though? Even AI developers refer to the thought processes employed by AI as a “black box.”

We don’t understand how the human brain works, yet we’re pursuing technology that seeks to reproduce its capabilities. In 2014, an AI solved a stubborn mathematical theorem using a novel solution that was as long as all the text on Wikipedia. Yes – the AI solved the problem, but even its creators didn’t fully understand how it did so.

This is a problem for tech transparency, yet it comes at a time when the general public is calling for greater transparency and accountability throughout consumer technology and big data. Individuals will benefit from a strong regulatory environment as AI and other far-reaching technologies come into their own.

2. AI Seems to Reproduce Human Bias

The banking industry is one sector pursuing mature AI technology with great enthusiasm. It seems as though human bankers are getting tired of the most common parts of their jobs – such as deciding who gets a mortgage, who receives a small-business loan, and whose home they must repossess.

Bankers want to use AI to make decisions previously relegated to flesh-and-blood loan officers and bank representatives. The trouble is this: data scientists need to train AI on historical data to make predictions and determinations. Unfortunately, we’re learning that financial institutions have historically withheld opportunities from various minorities.

Building AI on flawed data – data based on systemic discrimination – results in what researchers call proxy discrimination by AI. It’s not necessarily deliberate, but we need AI models that correct for these systemic sources of bias before such technology rolls out more widely and begins affecting – some would say dictating – the courses of people’s lives.

3. AI Might Exacerbate Socioeconomic Disparities

There is widespread concern that the maturing of AI as a technology will result in worsening socioeconomic inequality, unemployment, and a fraying of the social safety net. Threats to gainful employment are, in fact, among the top artificial intelligence ethical issues for many ordinary citizens.

Should we really consider AI and automation a threat, though? The question before humanity now is the role of work and downtime in our society. Isn’t AI supposed to free our bodies and minds for higher pursuits? Many believe so.

However, the current structure of society leaves many worried about spiraling economic inequality. With AI capable of displacing workers in more and more jobs and specialties, how will people earn a living? Is there enough “up-skilled” labor to go around? Can we help lower-tier workers retrain and pivot to different roles quickly enough?

Some are even floating the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) to create a new “bottom floor” for the working class. If robots are doing the lion’s share of the work, and the robots’ owners are enjoying all the rewards, then the working class needs some kind of “allowance” – a mechanism so they can actually participate in the economy. UBI might be the answer to AI “stealing” human jobs and could help keep the economy functioning.

Artificial Intelligence Ethical Concerns Are Here to Stay

Not one of these ethical concerns has a quick solution. Artificial intelligence is already an ingrained part of many industries, and its capabilities will only grow from here. From making predictions and business decisions to helping us pick what movie to watch on Netflix-and-Chill night, AI is all around us. Now and into the future, society will require thoughtful, driven, ethically minded individuals to study STEM disciplines, get into the AI field, and help shape policy regarding this consequential technology. The opportunities are many, but so are the pitfalls.