Ethics and Algorithms—Exploring the Implications of AI

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The always-on nature of these devices has led to law enforcement questions. In a 2015 case, Arkansas police wanted Amazon to turn over its recordings. Amazon Echo was streaming music in James Bates’s home on a night when a murder took place there. In this case, Bates eventually allowed the recording to be entered into evidence, meaning the court didn’t need to compel Amazon to turn over the recordings. But a second case, involving a double murder in Farmington, N.H., in January 2017 has had a different outcome.

In November 2018, the judge in the case ordered Amazon to turn its recordings over to prosecutors. That trial is scheduled to begin in May 2019. At press time, Amazon had not yet provided the court with the recordings and was fighting the request: “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

The Muddy Waters of Privacy Laws

Controversies involving technology and the law are not new. In fact, the U.S. federal government has been establishing guidelines for appropriate use of technology for more than five decades. The process provides broad guidelines, so many areas remain open to interpretation.

The federal Wiretap Statute of 1968 was a significant step in trying to outline how technology could be used lawfully and unlawfully. The act put restrictions on what steps law enforcement using telecommunications systems could take to gather evidence against criminals. The police needed to obtain a warrant by illustrating a viable threat before they could eavesdrop on an individual’s conversations.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 extended the law’s reach to computer systems. This act covers communications transmitted by and stored on computers and applies to email, telephone conversations, and data stored electronically. Does this act cover speech systems, like Amazon’s Alexa? “I think so, but right now, no case law exists,” says Drinker Biddle & Reath’s Dort.

“The U.S. does not have any federal laws that outline privacy issues in a granular way,” Dort explains. Guidelines come in a mishmash of federal and state regulations.

The Federal Trade Commission’s 2003 CAN SPAM Act regulates how online, email, and telemarketing services are delivered but not how private information gathered by those systems is handled. At the state level, California passed its Consumer Privacy Act, which grants consumers the right to know what information will be collected and how it will be used. It goes into effect in 2020. But any company doing business in the European Union is already subject to GDPR. As Nancy Davis Kho writes in “GDPR Implications for Speech Technology,” “The GDPR may raise an awkward issue for the voice tech industry: It requires reminding customers that you’re recording, analyzing, and storing their conversations in the first place.”

The Ethics of AI Beyond Speech

Of course, the use of AI reaches far beyond speech technologies; it’s been a concern for many of the tech industry’s best and brightest for some time. Back in 2014, while speaking at MIT, Elon Musk called AI humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” In a 2015 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, Microsoft founder Bill Gates responded to a question about the threat of super-intelligent machines to humans: “I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

Several years later, people are concerned and starting to try to address the issue. At its “Principles for AI: Towards a Humanistic Approach?” global conference in March, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) addressed the issue head on. Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond, assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination, executive office of the secretary-general of the United Nations, warned at the conference that “the current preference for nonbinding international agreements, part of the shift from cooperation to competition, is making nonbinding treaties much more attractive. But we cannot rely on everyone to be good.… If we let the invisible hand of the market operate freely, we will get useful applications, but our privacy will be eroded and inequalities will grow, contributing to the polarization of our societies.”

Ethical concerns aside, technological advancements don’t seem to be slowing down, and regulatory agencies are playing catch-up. Humanity is going to have to start moving faster if it wants to keep up with AI and all its implications. 

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering speech technology issues for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com or on Twitter @PaulKorzeniowski.

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