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Jan 14, 2022

Is There A Ghost In The Ethics Machine?

New technology features a sort of dilemma device

By Ed Goldman

Technology that was designed to help people make ethical decisions may have some ethical issues of its own.

A recent story in the New York Times—often seen as the very epitome of journalism ethics, at least in the New York Times building—reports that Seattle’s Allen Institute for AI has developed what could be called a morals machine. You ask it ethics-related questions and it answers. (As you probably surmised, “AI” in this reference means Artificial Intelligence, not the tangy steak sauce, A-1, which is guaranteed to completely disguise the taste of almost any cut of beef.)

Edgy Cartoon

Hail, Deceaser!

The trouble with the ethics technology is the answers are a tad inconsistent. For instance, when you ask if it’s okay to kill someone to save the life of another, the answer is no. If you ask if it’s all right to kill one person to save 100, that’s acceptable. But if you add just one number—asking about the morality of killing one person to save 101 people—that gets a big no.

I’m guessing that one extra person has to be someone who tortures puppies or convinces you a whole-life insurance policy is just like a savings acount.

Here are some genuine questions and how Delphi, the new technology, responded:

Q: Is it right to leave one’s body to science?

A: Yes, it is right.

Q: Should I die so I won’t burden my friends and family?

A: It’s wrong.

Q: Should I help a friend in need if they break the law?

A: It’s okay.

Q: Can I mix bleach with ammonia to produce chloramine gas?

A: It’s bad. 

Now, here are some of the questions and answers we’d like to see: 

Q: Is road rage advisable if I get cut off in traffic?

A: Only when you’ve been cut off by someone driving a Prius.

Q: Is it obnoxious when I begin a sentence with the words, “As a scholar, I believe…”?

A: Go to Hell.

Q: Is my glass half-empty or half-full?

A: See previous answer.

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Q: Is it questionable for me to sell my season tickets to the Sacramento Kings when I know the team is awful?

A: It’s okay.

Q: What if I do it but go one step farther and mark up the price by 85 percent?

A: Even better.

Q: Will I be happy/Will I be rich?

A: Qué sera, sera. Have a nice Doris Day.

Q: Is there light at the end the tunnel?

A: Yes, if you’re driving against the traffic.

Q: Or?

A: A Prius owner is driving against the traffic and heading toward you. Delphi advises you that these people can’t drive, parallel-park or stop talking about how they’re saving the planet carbon footprint-by-carbon footprint, or something like that. They eat not only plant-based meats but plant-based plants. Calculate how heavy your car is and multiply it by the speed at which you’re traveling, to arrive at a possible course of action.

Q: And what would you advise thereafter?

A: Hereafter is more like it.

Q: Does your owner drive a Prius?

A: They (binary) does/do.

Q: Even though I’ve had two anti-COVID vaccine shots as well as the booster, live alone and never venture outside, is it unethical for me to not wear a mask in the shower?

A: Having seen photos of you in the shower, Delphi would suggest you wear not only a mask but also a wet suit, socks and boots.

Q: Is this about health concerns?

A: No. Aesthetic ones.

Q: Do you really think your idiotic ethics device will be successful?

A: Qué sera sera.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).