Silicon Valley "does ethics"

What do AI ethicists do and are they making a difference?

An abstract image of Lady Justice

AI ethics is a hot topic. Google Trends hints that peak “AI ethics” might be on its way. Surprisingly (or not) it is highest trending in DC.

Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, AI Ethicist is now a real job. Which is pretty interesting because it seems that tech giants are stumbling from one ethical dilemma to another on a more or less daily basis. And here’s what’s most curious — according to Tristan Harris, all that’s required for Silicon Valley to fundamentally change its impact on the world is for about 1000 people to change their ideas about technology. Which means it should be a finite, albeit difficult, problem.

So how are AI ethicists in Silicon Valley actually doing their jobs? And does their presence make a difference?

Data and Society researchers recently gathered “informants” from various Silicon Valley tech companies - people employed to “do ethics” for big tech. These “ethics owners” were interviewed for their views on the practical progress of ethics in Silicon Valley.

They found a central dilemma - ethics owners have to try to resolve complex social decisions, which are posited and framed (and come under challenge) from outside the company, inside the logic of Silicon Valley. One of the most prevailing Silicon Valley logics is that the solution to a “bad” technology outcome is more technology; technology solutionism. Because AI is used in social applications, this philosophy is being applied to more and more social problems.

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