Wednesday, 21 August 2019 12:30

Book review: We the People by Peter S. Temes and Florin Rotar

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"We the People" front cover "We the People" front cover

Big Data can tease out all manner of analyses and conclusions from our very digital world, but how can it know what is 'right and proper?'

Without coming to any specific conclusion, this book poses the question, 'How should we instil ethics into modern life, particularly when more and more of what we do is controlled by technology?'

Drawing from such diverse sources as Marx' theory of work and value, Milgram's authority experiments in the 1960s, the drafting of the US Declaration of Independence (and how it was strongly influenced by the writings of John Locke) and the classic Trolley-car dilemma, amongst many others, this book attempts to describe the processes that must be undertaken in order to infuse an ethical underpinning into the automated systems that are beginning to control our lives.

A couple of examples. Early in the book the authors pose an interesting scenario. What if the quality sensors in a drinking water dam detect that there are too many pollutants flowing off a near-by road? A management system might be programmed to automatically close the road during periods of high rain to minimise the impact. However, perhaps due to the wet weather, there was a serious vehicle accident at one end of the road and the nearest hospital was directly at the opposite end. What should be done?

Of course, there is no 'correct' answer to this. The book makes that very clear. However, what is intended by this rather simple example is that, as a society, we should be establishing some very fundamental rules to describe what is important to us - what are the ethical foundations upon which decisions ought to be made?

When confronted with many ethical dilemmas, the average person will almost instantly know the correct way to act (although this correct way may not be the same for you as it is for me!). This behaviour is well described in Daniel Kahneman's book, "Thinking Fast and Slow." The problem is that the AI system has to be told how to behave - there is no 'learning,' neither are there 'feelings' on the matter.

The book does make a few suggestions for ethical behaviour, such as "protect those who need the most protection," but even that raises more questions than it answers!

It may well be that a smoothly running society, driven by well-constructed AI and all manner of technology is the ideal thing to aim for. Clean streets, efficient and reliable transport, non-existent crime, nothing but good news... But, the authors argue, this is little more than a dictatorship, possibly benign, but the entire concepts of democracy and creativity will wither away to nothing as both rely on adversity to flourish.

In April 2018, around 40 individuals with expertise in law, engineering, policy-making, leadership, diplomacy and writing gathered to address the challenges described in this book. After two days of deliberation, mainly in small groups, they delivered three public domain documents that were "meant to capture the principles and aspirations that should guide digital development of all kinds."

This book is intended as a longer introduction to the thinking required to achieve the intended outcome. A short summary is available here

Although a little dry in places and in need of a little more editing, this book is highly recommended. Amazon Australia lists the book as being in stock and available for $13.35. 

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