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What Buddhism can do for AI ethics

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What Buddhism can do for AI ethics


People both in the East and the West need to share their ideas and consider those from others to enrich their own perspectives. Because the development and use of AI spans the entire globe, the way we think about it should be informed by all the major intellectual traditions.

With that in mind, I believe that insights derived from Buddhist teaching could benefit anyone working on AI ethics anywhere in the world, and not only in traditionally Buddhist cultures (which are mostly in the East and primarily in Southeast Asia).

Buddhism proposes a way of thinking about ethics based on the assumption that all sentient beings want to avoid pain. Thus, the Buddha teaches that an action is good if it leads to freedom from suffering.

The implication of this teaching for artificial intelligence is that any ethical use of AI must strive to decrease pain and suffering. In other words, for example, facial recognition technology should be used only if it can be shown to reduce suffering or promote well-being. Moreover, the goal should be to reduce suffering for everyone—not just those who directly interact with AI.

We can of course interpret this goal broadly to include fixing a system or process that’s unsatisfactory, or changing any situation for the better. Using technology to discriminate against people, or to surveil and repress them, would clearly be unethical. When there are gray areas or the nature of the impact is unclear, the burden of proof would be with those seeking to show that a particular application of AI does not cause harm.

Do no harm

A Buddhist-inspired AI ethics would also understand that living by these principles requires self-cultivation. This means that those who are involved with AI should continuously train themselves to get closer to the goal of totally eliminating suffering. Attaining the goal is not so important; what is important is that they undertake the practice to attain it. It’s the practice that counts.

Designers and programmers should practice by recognizing this goal and laying out specific steps their work would take in order for their product to embody the ideal. That is, the AI they produce must be aimed at helping the public to eliminate suffering and promote well-being.  

For any of this to be possible, companies and government agencies that develop or use AI must be accountable to the public. Accountability is also a Buddhist teaching, and in the context of AI ethics it requires effective legal and political mechanisms as well as judicial independence. These components are essential in order for any AI ethics guideline to work as intended.

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10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021

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10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021


Hydrogen has always been an intriguing possible replacement for fossil fuels. It burns cleanly, emitting no carbon dioxide; it’s energy dense, so it’s a good way to store power from on-and-off renewable sources; and you can make liquid synthetic fuels that are drop-in replacements for gasoline or diesel. But most hydrogen up to now has been made from natural gas; the process is dirty and energy intensive.

The rapidly dropping cost of solar and wind power means green hydrogen is now cheap enough to be practical. Simply zap water with electricity, and presto, you’ve got hydrogen. Europe is leading the way, beginning to build the needed infrastructure. Peter Fairley argues that such projects are just a first step to an envisioned global network of electrolysis plants that run on solar and wind power, churning out clean hydrogen.

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For years, I’ve tried to work my way back into the middle class

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For years, I’ve tried to work my way back into the middle class


Yet I am also a woman who, after a quick succession of traumas, plunged out of the protected realms of the middle class and into two years of homelessness. My experience is surprisingly common. From June to November 2020, nearly 8 million people in the US fell into poverty in the face of the pandemic and limited government relief, according to research from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame.

Poverty is a complicated thing. It can be generational or situational and temporary—or anything in between. For me, climbing out of poverty has been as much about mindset as it has been about the dollars in my bank account. “I am going to do this,” I tell myself over and over again. “I have inherited the strength from my father to do this.”

In the spring of 2017, I finally left my last makeshift “home”—a slatted wood park bench in that same park. My first job during my recovery was as an $11-an-hour grocery clerk at a Whole Foods store where my 20-something bosses handed me pre-set timers whenever I took a bathroom break. As a former journalist who had risen through the ranks of the Miami Herald to write cover stories for the paper’s Sunday magazine, I stood at my register, struggling to hold back tears.

From June to November 2020, nearly 8 million people in the US fell into poverty.

Well-meaning people tried to encourage me by pointing out how far I had come. “You’re working!” they said, “You’re housed!” And the declaration I found most diminishing: “I’m so proud of you!”

I was 52 and I did not mark my progress by those measurements. Rather, I marked my progress by how far I had fallen. What did it mean that I was earning enough to rent a room in someone’s house when just a few years ago, I had owned a three-acre horse ranch in Oregon?

One of the most debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress is that people who suffer from it avoid the things that hurt them most. For me, that meant I avoided myself.

I was full of shame and self-hatred. Hatred that I—someone who had once had hundreds of thousands of dollars in the stock market—had collapsed. Hatred that I had become one of “them.”

Through tears, I told my trauma therapist how I was regularly stalked and beaten by a man who worked the front counter of the homeless outreach center where I had picked up my daily hygiene kits.

“If you don’t love that part of yourself that you have so successfully distanced yourself from, you will not be able to fully heal,” my therapist said.

Slowly, after many sessions, I came to feel great compassion for the desperate woman I once was. I envisioned myself sitting beside her in the streets, holding her and telling her: “I am so sorry. I will never separate myself from you again. I will take care of you.”

My incremental but steady steps forward did not come from the expected governmental or community resources. They came from a series of strangers who cared about my welfare. The systems that our society has in place to lift people out of poverty are fragile and full of holes, so I learned to look elsewhere.

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The government failed Texans—so people on the internet stepped in

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The government failed Texans—so people on the internet stepped in


Mutual aid is not a new concept, long flourishing in marginalized communities. But a year of pandemic-induced crises has trained such groups to react quickly: they know that the first place people will turn in a crisis is the internet.

Mellissa Martinez, a 24-year-old student based in Houston, was without electricity or internet access for 72 hours. But during spurts of Wi-Fi availability, she was able to cobble together the TX Mutual Aid Directory, which lists shelter locations, food pantries, and requests for supplies. Martinez, a member of the Sunrise Movement, a political action committee aimed at fighting climate change, says much of the groundwork for the document was done in January after the Capitol Hill insurrection. “We were showing we need to take care of each other,” she says.

“I have just been updating it whenever I could get any signal at all,” Martinez managed to tell me, before her signal dropped again. When she called back she added, “That’s all I did for 72 hours: just nonstop staring at the page and refreshing it. People needed us to scramble and shoot out the directory.”

Christina Tan, a 22-year-old with Mutual Aid Houston, says the group coordinated within hours. “We knew we had to activate quickly to help folks who were trapped in cold apartments or houses with no way of driving on icy roads,” she says. “We also knew that a lot of folks would be in need of help with electricity bills, burst pipes, medical assistance, and more.”

Mutual Aid Houston has a reliable social media plan that it enacted immediately. “Twitter is appealing since it allows us to update folks live with resources such as restaurants donating food or locations to pick up water; it also lets us talk to people one-to-one through DMs and quickly identify people in need,” says Tan. “Instagram is for visuals, which is useful when directing folks places, and especially for raising money … We primarily use Venmo and Cash App to distribute money directly back to people, although we are exploring ways to reach people without bank accounts or without digital banking.” Tan says the nine-person volunteer team is collaborating constantly on Slack and Zoom.



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