One of the age-old themes illuminated in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is that of free will. Does Macbeth possess the agency to commit murder, or is he simply fulfilling the prophesy of the Witches? Or, to muddy the waters further, what role does the Witches’ foretelling of the future have on Macbeth’s destiny? Had he not heard them would his fate have been any different?
Carrisa Veliz, associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI at Oxford University, is in no doubt. She argues that ceding more of our choices to algorithms threatens to denude mankind of mavericks, leaders, inventors and creators — anyone who thinks outside the box.
This dilemma (most recently interpreted by Joel Coen in The Tragedy of Macbeth, the latest cinema version of the play), is also one that can be applied to ethical considerations about how computer algorithms appear to increasingly govern our lives.
To what extent do recommendation engines, addressable advertising or personalized political messaging determine what we do, where we go, what we buy and what we think?
“We want a society that allows and stimulates actions that defy the odds,” she writes at Wired. “Yet the more we use AI to categorize people, predict their future, and treat them accordingly, the more we narrow human agency, which will in turn expose us to unchartered risks.”
Predictions are not innocuous, she maintains. The extensive use of predictive analytics can change the way human beings think about themselves.
Such ethical issues lead back to one of the oldest debates in philosophy: If there is an omniscient God, we can be said to be truly free? If a supreme being already knows all that is going to happen, that means whatever is going to happen has been predetermined. The implication is that our feeling of free will is nothing but that: a feeling.
“Part of what it means to treat a person with respect is to acknowledge their agency and ability to change themselves and their circumstances,” she contends. “If we decide that we know what someone’s future will be before it arrives, and treat them accordingly, we are not giving them the opportunity to act freely and defy the odds of that prediction.”
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A second, related ethical problem with predicting human behavior is that by treating people like things, we are creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Predictions are rarely neutral. More often than not, the act of prediction intervenes in the reality it purports to merely observe.
“For example, when Facebook predicts that a post will go viral, it maximizes exposure to that post, and lo and behold, the post goes viral.”
Veliz goes further, arguing that if AI-driven predictive analytics are partly creating the reality they purport to predict, “then they are partly responsible for the negative trends we are experiencing in the digital age, from increasing inequality to polarization, misinformation, and harm to children and teenagers.”
Predictions are not innocuous. The extensive use of predictive analytics can even change the way human beings think about themselves. There is value in believing in free will.
By contrast, there is immeasurable value to society in believing in free will she says. After all, society has countered theological fatalism — the idea that everything is known by God — by creating ways to improve our health, our education, and punishing those who transgress the norm.
“The more we use predictive analytics on people, the more we conceptualize human beings as nothing more than the result of their circumstances, and the more people are likely to experience themselves as devoid of agency and powerless in the face of hardship.”
In other words, Veliz says we have to choose between treating human beings “as mechanistic machines” whose future can and should be predicted (welcome to The Matrix, folks), or treating each other as independent agents (in which case making people the target of individual predictions is inappropriate).
Unless, of course, our minds have already been made up for us.