Most discourses on the risks of Artificial Intelligence tend to focus on tech applications that are in the future horizon. The preoccupation with perceived threats such as sentient robots and AI consciousness takes away attention from AI-related issues that are already in the present, affecting simple daily activities such as reading the news, watching YouTube, or using a smartphone app. As School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) researchers Lê Nguyên Hoang and El Mahdi El Mhamdi emphasize in their new book, there is an urgent need to restate ethical questions related to algorithms in computational terms.

In their work The fabulous endeavor: making AI robustly beneficial, Hoang and El Mhamdi bring to fore their expertise in machine learning systems and mathematics to provide a conceptual understanding of key algorithms. They believe that the need to make AI “robustly beneficial” should be seen in the current context and not only in future applications. Without an ethical framework in place, algorithms are making millions of decisions that create problematic content in domains such as, inter alia, communication, commerce, entertainment, and politics. The situation calls for an urgent and time-bound implementation of ethical guidelines, referred to by the authors as “philosophy with a deadline.” Citing a real-world example of how people are exposed to problematic content every day, Hoang and El Mhamdi draw attention to recommender algorithms used by YouTube, which govern 70% of viewing decisions by the user; that leaves very little scope for clicks based on a direct search.

The moot question is how to deal with the ethical dilemmas associated with AI: is the onus on ethicists or computer scientists? The authors argue that such questions are in the domain of computer scientists, and could open a new research area for budding scientists. In the words of Hoang, “Many computer science scholars today are focusing on performance, and that’s good, but these computational ethics problems are not only more urgent – they are also extremely challenging and fascinating.”

The book is currently available in French from EDP Sciences. An English edition will be published later this year.