My recent reading of the novel "Klara and the Sun" written by the Novel Prize-winning writer was lovely. Beyond the simple joy of reading the story, the book enabled me to rethink the concept of artificial intelligence "AI" from an ethical standpoint.
In my opinion, what’s unique about Klara and the Sun was how the author illustrated an AI, Klara, as a character. What I mean by that is how realistically the story depicts the emotion and behavior of the “machine,” and I think it is one of the few differentiators we can see among numerous Sci-Fi books/movies that set an AI as a core of its storyline, like A.I. and Her.
In other words, while Klara and the Sun is not outstanding for me in terms of the underlying messages the story tries to convey, like “love”, “relationship”, and “beauty of the human world” that many Sci-Fi stories commonly speak, the author beautifully illustrated interactions between humans (e.g., Josie, Rick, Mother) and AI (Klara) with detailed psychological description both implicitly and explicitly.
Meanwhile, several thought-provoking paragraphs asked readers for thinking about AI ethics e.g., by letting a boy, Rick, talk about how he thinks about an ethical aspect of drone technology. Eventually, every single behavior of the characters dictates the possibility and limitation of AI, and the reality makes a boundary between a machine-like program and human-like AI ambiguous throughout the book; as soon as Klara started working for a girl, Josie, I can easily forget the fact that Klara is actually a machine because the artificial friend captures the world and converses with the others so naturally.
After reading the well-crafted story, I cannot stop thinking about the following questions:
- What do you imagine when someone calls a particular piece of code “AI”?
- What is your definition of “AI” (vs. ordinary software program)?
- Is an expert system (i.e., heuristics, a rule-based program that helps our decision-making process) still “AI”?
As a developer working on data analytics and machine learning, which are the technical foundations of making modern AI-ish applications possible, I want to be particularly conscious of the word since it implies too many different ideas depending on the context. It’s not just a buzzword used for fancy marketing communications, and I strongly believe answering these questions is a key first step to discussing the ethical issues we are facing in the era of big data.
“AI”—Someone would immediately imagine a Sci-Fi-quality sophisticated autonomous robot that doesn’t look different from real humans, while some others might give more realistic answers based on what we already have e.g., robot vacuum cleaners, Siri-like voice assistants, and data-driven applications such as recommendation and machine translation.
For me, AI is ultimately defined by the “behavior” of the program and our perception of that. That is, like Klara demonstrated in the story, seamless interaction with end users (humans) indicates the sophistication of the machine. At the same time, sensitivity to user feedback (i.e., what humans speak in front of Klara, and how Klara responds to it) determines whether we categorize the program as “just a machine” or “AI”. In that sense, any kind of software program can potentially be an AI, and vice versa, regardless of its technical complexity.
It's not about the unseen future, and it's rather a matter that we all are already facing daily. Therefore, it is important for developers to carefully think of how to implement machine-human interactions (i.e., user interface/interaction), and this is where the idea of ethical product development & humane technology comes into play.
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Last updated: 2022-09-09
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.
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