Robots are already making decisions for us – how far do we want that to go?


Last week I spoke at a very interesting event ‘Should We Turn Over Decision-Making To Robots?‘. It was the first of a series of discussion organised by WWF‘s Panda Labs, delving into the ethics and positive potential of emerging technologies.

ABC News published an article Relinquishing more power to robots up for debate at futurist talks based on pre-event interviews with fellow panelist Theresa Anderson, Director of the Master of Data Science and Innovation at UTS and myself.

It quotes me:

Ross Dawson, chairman of the Future Exploration Network, offered some examples.

“We’ve already seen that artificial intelligence is making decisions around parole, around bail, around whether people get loans,” he said.

Mr Dawson said on the one hand, giving more power to robots could help reduce carbon emissions.

“For example, if we devolved to robots when the traffic lights turn green and red than rather just be automated, we can have a far more efficient flow of traffic.”

Specific-purpose and general purpose robots

At the event I described how specific-purpose robots and AI such as washing machines and voice-controlled speakers are already embedded in our lives. While it will be a slower shift to general-purpose machines like household robots and AI for personal advice, that will come.

AI and algorithms, approached the right way, can bring us great boons, certainly in convenience but also in societal efficiency, including in many activities that impact the environment.

Trusting too much?

However there is absolutely a risk of trusting too much in our technology, both in terms of dependence, but also in trusting that they are making the right decisions for us.

There is no such thing as an objective person or objective decision, so we need to incorporate as diverse perspectives as possible into our algorithms so they reflect societal values, not just the outlook of an individual or narrow group of people.

Consciously shaping the boundary between machines and humans

And as we do choose to devolve decisions and responsibilities to technology, we need to be very conscious of where we want to maintain the boundary between humans and machines.

I believe that one potential upside of the ‘rise of machines’ is that it allows us to define and express better than ever before what it is that makes us human and unique.

However there is a very real risk that we let machines take over activities that should remain fully in the human domain.

Which is why need to be deeply conscious as we tap the power of AI, in ensuring that it creates value for all rather than eroding our society and who we are.