Beware corporate ‘machinewashing’ of AI

By Nick Obradovich, William Powers, Manuel Cebrian, and Iyad Rahwan

Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the fossil fuel industry and other corporate polluters came under fire for harming the environment, the polluters launched massive ad campaigns portraying themselves as friends of the earth. This cynical practice was later dubbed “greenwashing.”

Today we may be witnessing a new kind of greenwashing in the technology sector. Addressing widespread concerns about the pernicious downsides of artificial intelligence (AI)—robots taking jobs, fatal autonomous-vehicle crashes, racial bias in criminal sentencing, the ugly polarization of the 2018 election—tech giants are working hard to assure us of their good intentions surrounding AI. But some of their public relations campaigns are creating the surface illusion of positive change without the verifiable reality. Call it “machinewashing.”

Earlier this year, Google posted a list of seven AI principles, beginning with “Be Socially Beneficial.” Microsoft published “The Future Computed,’’ a book calling for “a human-centered approach to AI that reflects timeless values,” and launched a program to support developers working to meet humanitarian needs. Germany-based SAP, one of the world’s largest software companies, now has an AI ethics advisory panel that includes a theologian, a political scientist, and a bioethicist.

On seeing these initiatives, the natural response is to applaud. If the most powerful tech companies are on the case, surely these problems will soon be solved.

Or will they?

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