This is another example where AI—in this case, machine-learning methods—intersects with these ethical and civic questions in an ultimately promising and potentially productive way. As a society we have these values in maxim form, like equal opportunity, justice, fairness, and in many ways they’re deliberately vague. This deliberate flexibility and ambiguity are what allows things to be a living document that stays relevant. But here we are in this world where we have to say of some machine-learning model, is this racially fair? We have to define these terms, computationally or numerically.
It’s problematic in the short term because we have no idea what we’re doing; we don’t have a way to approach that problem yet. In the slightly longer term—five or ten years—there’s a profound opportunity to come together as a polis and get precise about what we mean by justice or fairness with respect to certain protected classes. Does that mean it’s got an equal false positive rate? Does that mean it has an equal false negative rate? What is the tradeoff that we’re willing to make? What are the constraints that we want to put on this model-building process? That’s a profound question, and we haven’t needed to address it until now. There’s going to be a civic conversation in the next few years about how to make these concepts explicit.
BRIAN CHRISTIAN is the author of The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive, and coauthor (with Tom Griffiths) of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. Brian Christian's Edge Bio Page