Interview with Pascal Finette, co-founder of radical Ventures and Singular University’s Chair for Entrepreneurship & Open Innovation.
Alexander Görlach: In recent months some of the great minds of artificial intelligence have called for a moratorium where we’d discuss the ethical implications that AI will be having – the views of Elon Musk and others is a rather negative one. What do you make out of this latest development? Have we underestimated the negative impact AI may be having?
Pascal Finette: There is a lot to unpack in this question: First of all, I think it is important to acknowledge the fact that AI, as a field, has only very recently been at a point in its development where we really have to ask these questions.
The field, of course, is decades old – but only with the availability of cheap and abundant compute resources combined with breakthroughs in neural networks and deep learning algorithms have we been able to create systems which bring up real ethical questions. Also, make no mistake – we have been debating (in the abstract) potential ethical implications of an AI-powered world for much longer than the current public debate. With self-driving cars showing up on our roads, drones in the sky, and AIs in our smartphones the topic has, for sure, gotten much more prominent and urgent. Personally, I find the debate important, timely and sadly also a bit too negative (at least in its portrayal in the media).
Alexander Görlach: So is your outlook more positive than bleak?
Why is it that some of the great minds behind this new technology now alert the public and urge us to take a closer look at the implications AI has?
For as long as humans have used technology it has shaped us and our behaviors. I don’t think that this is something new, nor is the human desire for stability and fear of change.
Pascal Finette: Yes, I believe overall the positive applications outweigh the potential for damage. The advent of intelligent machines combined with ubiquitous connectivity is comparable to the invention of the steam engine – a lot will change. Again, all that being said we do need to have the debate and careful consideration for the potential harm which AI can bring with it.
As for the second part of your question: I think it is telling that the people who shout loudest are typically not (trained) experts in AI. Leading AI researchers such as Andrew Ng usually voice a more nuanced view and insight into the debate.
Alexander Görlach: How do we address the ethical questions that already arise from these new technologies properly: for example, in the field of medicine and self-driving cars?
I agree, what is at hand will be as impactful as the invention of the steam engine. Many nuanced thinkers also have identified the challenges that come with such disruption and innovation. Yet it remains always somewhat blurry to me how to find answers to these questions.
Pascal Finette: It feels to me that most of the (public) debate focuses on finding solutions and frameworks to address very specific questions: for example, the famous “trolley problem” (the question of how an autonomous vehicle should behave when it faces a decision where it has to choose between ploughing into a group of elderly or children in the case of an unavoidable accident).
Furthermore, many of these issues tend to be highly unlikely edge cases (how often do we really encounter the trolley problem in the real world for example?). It feels to me that we are better served by leveling-up the discussion to a much broader conversation about ethical norms and frameworks – which requires a much more diverse participating audience (think: philosophers for example), rather than only us technologists in a room.
Alexander Görlach: I totally agree, its the everyday ethics that matter more than the decision making in a relevant, yet highly unlikely situation. But some would argue that these everyday norms have already been affected, for better or worse: some argue that dating platforms have made the mystery of human encounter into a swipe-left, swipe-right consumerist event. However, others highlight that these platforms have contributed to the rise of inter-racial relationships and marriages. How do you see these alterations in our human behavior brought to us by technology? Are they even a problem at all?
Pascal Finette: For as long as humans have used technology it has shaped us and our behaviors. I don’t think that this is something new, nor is the human desire for stability and fear of change. What I think is new is the sheer pace and ferocity with which these changes happen to us.
Take your example of dating: I am going to date myself here, but when I used to date in the late 90s and early 00s, online dating was an oddity and mostly for “weird people”. Today it is not just completely accepted but also has become the norm rather than the exception. It took only about ten years to change a deeply ingrained social norm – and this is what we are seeing more and more now (and on ever-shortening time frames).
Alexander Görlach: I tend to think that connecting people, be it on dating platforms, on Facebook or Twitter, created the single most mind-blowing effect of these new technologies. With immediate repercussions to ethics, as in ethics understood as standards and norms by which we interact with one another. So, it’s a noble cause to connect people, on Facebook for instance. But in the process, the platform has lost the sense of viability and its impact and implications.
As humans, for the longest time we would only know a limited number of people that would accompany us throughout our lifetime. So, differences had to be overcome by interpersonal action. Is our brain capable of fathoming this new level of connectivity?
When you look at even some more recent changes, you see that we have managed to create new broadly accepted social norms within a relatively short period of time.
Pascal Finette: If the past is any indicator, we shouldn’t be too concerned about our brain’s ability to adapt. If you would have told your ancestors that one day you will (safely) operate a vehicle at 80 miles an hour (or 250 km/h when you are enjoying the German Autobahn), they would have looked at you in total disbelief and argued that the human brain can’t cope with speeds above those of a galloping horse. Or look at the neurological studies done on London cab drivers – their brain has developed a whole different set of synapses in response to the complicated London road layout.
Alexander Görlach: Fair point. How do we deal with the social implications of this altering social connectivity? Humans have proven to be able to tackle and work along with evolution, which is basically the adaptation to change.
Pascal Finette: Absolutely. When you look at even some more recent changes, you see that we have managed to create new broadly accepted social norms within a relatively short period of time. Remember when mobile phones first became widespread and people barked into their phones while being out at dinner? That is a good example of a technology which created a new behavioral pathway (you can take and make a phone call outside of the home/office or phone booth) with society not having had a chance to develop a social norm yet. Within a few years, we developed and adopted a social norm which says that it is not acceptable to be talking loudly on the phone when in public.
That being said – the challenge will be that the pace of change is accelerating and we just might not have enough time to adopt social norms fast enough. We will see…
Thank you very much!
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