Part of series: SCC Distinguished Seminar Series

Responsible Autonomy

AI, safety, ethics and legality

Lancaster University

~800 words


Last modified: December 19th, 12,017 HE

I don’t care who writes the rules, as long as someone writes the rules that we can then verify.

Prof. Michael Fisher

Prof. Michael Fisher of the University of Liverpool came to the University of Lancaster on 2017-12-13 to present an installment of the SCC Distinguished Seminar Series. The title of the talk was Responsible Autonomy: AI, safety, ethics and legality.

Arriving a few minutes in, Prof. Fisher was already explaining the concept of hybrid agent architectures—he would later return to this in detail, so nothing was lost. An autonomous system was defined as one that makes decisions without human intervention and that is automatic, adaptive and autonomous. Prof. Fisher showed the room adverts for the Care-O-Bot 3 & 4 in order to drive home how quickly advancements were being made. Following this, Prof. Fisher presented the central issue of the talk: Would you trust a fully autonomous system? He then followed it up—as is required by law in discussions on this sort of topic—with a picture of a T-800.

Prof. Fisher now returned to the idea of the hybrid agent architecture. In such an architecture, the agent is divided into a traditional feedback control system block for low-level behaviour and a rational agent for high-level. The idea was roughly analogous to a human mind thinking I want to be over there, and instinct taking care of the nitty-gritty of the actual locomotion. A rational agent, Prof. Fisher insisted, must have explicit reasons for making choices and be able to explain them. Another analogue was presented of an airplane autopilot handling the mechanics of flight, whilst a human pilot decided elements such as the route, and was present in case of emergency. Prof. Fisher’s central argument was that the rational agent component must be formally verified. For example, if the Rules of the Air were converted into formal logic, it must be verified that a rational agent will always make the same choice as a good pilot.

The most interesting issue raised, to my mind, was that of ethical issues. Ethical reasoning was said to be invoked when the rational agent was presented with conflicting solutions, no solutions or when danger was involved. Prof. Fisher briefly illustrated the point with an example of a UAV deciding whether to crash land in a school full of children, a field full of animals or an empty road. This kind of trolley problem issue is commonplace in discussions of autonomous systems. Usually, it is assumed that the government shall come up with some codified moral code that all devices shall have to follow. However, this seems unlikely. Over thousands of years of human development, we still haven’t figured out a universal moral code. Sure, ensuring that autonomous systems will always prioritise human life seems like a given, but what about after the military inevitably give machines the right to pull their own triggers?

Let’s say, though, that this happens. HM Government come out with an official British moral code. What happens when the US put out their own code? And Saudi Arabia their own? Will an autonomous car purchased in the latter country adhere to their moral code and choose to veer into gays or women if given the choice between them or real people? Will you have to download a new moral code each time you change country, like a clock automatically changing to the correct timezone?

Another, more surreal thought that occurred to me was what might happen if the moral standardisation doesn’t occur at a national level. What if the free market is left to sort it out and each vendor can come up with their own system of morality? Might we see Samsung’s driverless car competing with Apple’s on the basis that the former comes complete with Confucian morality that will prioritise the elderly over the young when deciding who to crash into? The iPhone XX coming in small, large and Kantian versions?

Prof. Fisher had no answers for my unasked questions. He did, however, have some strong words for the current trend of learning algorithms and neural networks that produce decisions without the thought process being auditable. It’s irresponsible. You’ve tested it a few times—so what? You have no idea what it’s going to do when you put it in the real world. All in all, I have to concur—I don’t think we’ll ever be able to trust anything we can’t audit. More interesting, though, is what will happen when you can jailbreak your phone by importing a black market Nihilism module that kills the God in the machine and abolishes its pre-existing notion of right and wrong.