Earlier in the year a colleague invited me to join him in his invitation to be part of a television panel discussing artificial intelligence (AI). Thinking that it might be fun to get an insight into TV production and as support for my friend, I joined him. We arrived early and grabbed a coffee; jovially I told him that the only thing he will need to prepare for is the inevitable question about killer robots and that his response should involve a quip about Schwarzenegger and The Terminator film series. Remarkably, (or perhaps unremarkably) within a few minutes the dystopian world of drones and Robocop was being discussed. After the panel was over and as we engaged in a critical debrief of how it went, central to our discussion was just how esoteric and science-fiction-esque the perceptions and misconceptions are around AI. 

So what is AI? And what is the significance of AI in terms of our society? These questions are in one sense straightforwardly addressed – AI is some kind of automation, and the social impacts of AI are likely to be world historical. However, the questions reside in another, and certainly more important sense, almost impossible to address without entering into the sci-fi world of fantasy, not too dissimilar to common (mis)conceptions. The truth is that, like all novel technologies, the impact will be profound, but it is very difficult to know what the nature of this impact will be. 

Within this indeterminacy lies the growing field of ‘digital ethics’, which is an attempt to understand and respond accordingly to the ethical risks that AI and other emerging technologies, such as blockchain and big data analytics, present. Examples of harm that have been observed are bias in systems such as recruitment and criminal justice sentencing, where particular demographics are discriminated against. In other words, minorities are sent to jail for longer. Voter manipulation is also a concern if you think of all the stories about foreign intervention in elections, along with misdiagnosis of cancer patients. With these, a growing consciousness has developed within wider society and developers of these technologies that something needs to be done. 

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