Can Anything Artificial Ever Be Good?

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Since I was a kid, it was an unspoken rule that anything “artificial” simply could not be “good.” This was probably caused by the fact that I grew up at a time when “artificial” and “fast” were quickly taking over. Just look at the breakfast table of the 60’s and 70’s  – Tang took the place of orange juice, Fruit Loops replaced the blueberries or strawberries one might have otherwise put into whole grain cereals, and Carnation Instant Breakfast was the best solution if you didn’t have the time to sit and eat your Tang and Fruit Loops!  The convenience, the novelty and the lack of awareness of “artificial’s” impact on society led us down that slippery slope faster than anyone could have imagined. 

And here we are again…the convenience, the novelty and the lack of awareness of how much “artificial” controls our lives is eerily similar to the trends of an earlier generation; however, this time with much more serious consequences. We think nothing of having “Alexa” entertain, educate and help us run our “smart” homes. Facial recognition technology allows us to rush through security checks of all kinds. And the excited teenager learning how to drive no longer has to worry about the dreaded “parallel parking” – the car’s AI will park it for them. 

Can anything artificial ever be “good?” Better yet, can it be “ethical?” Aristotle associated “good” with “virtue.” Can anything artificial be virtuous? Consequentialists would assert that if AI increases the “good” for most people, then it is, in fact, ethical. How can we weigh the benefits of something that controls and influences so many aspects of our lives…without knowing that it’s even happening!

Can anything artificial ever be good? An ethical lens is what is needed to bring awareness to the potential benefits and harms of AI in every aspect of our lives – before it’s too late.  If AI follows the route of “artificial” as it did in the case with Tang, Fruit Loops and Carnation Instant Breakfast, the damage will be done before the novelty and convenience eventually wear off – and society is  left with an outcome that is ultimately not so sweet…or good.

The Ethics Institute is launching a new summer program for high school students: Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. You can find more information and register for the program here.