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Why we need a Hippocratic Oath for algorithms and AI

Smart cities are about people. Vitor Pereira looks at how we stay human-centred in an increasingly algorithmic world.

MIT's Norman: The world's first 'psychopath AI'
MIT's Norman: The world's first 'psychopath AI'

At this year’s ZOOM SMART CITIES (Portugal’s major smart city event), we had the opportunity to listen to Arlindo Oliveira, President of Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon), talk about the future of humanity, and the challenges and questions raised by the growing hype around artificial intelligence (AI). As the prestigious scholar explained so clearly and engagingly, we are already living in the future.

However, we shouldn’t be blinded by technological wizardry. While we have fanciful discussions about what is intelligent or not, artificial or human, algorithms continue to run. Machines continue to multiply, relentlessly. What does this mean for humans and society?

Shaping the world

Computing power is skyrocketing and in many cases it already overwhelmingly surpasses human capacity to solve complex problems (it remains to be seen whether our innate ability to create them will also be supplanted).


Machines that can study rules and guidelines become seen as the true Gods. Advancing technology enables machines to run endless simulations and projections, learn from errors, and bypass them in the next instant. At first glance, a simple game of Chess, Go or Rubik’s Cube appears to harmless. However, the most important game machines play has a direct role in our lives.


The greatest technological advancement in modern history was the invention of the press in the fifteenth century. It allowed people to seek empirical knowledge to replace the previously dominant liturgical doctrine. The Age of Reason gradually replaced the Age of Religion. It was a decisive moment for individual development and scientific knowledge.


The information then began to be recorded and organised in archives and libraries. The Age of Reason was the origin of the thought and action that shape today’s world.


The Internet Age


This order is now gradually being replaced by a new one – an order founded also on a technological revolution, but a more complex one, and one whose consequences nobody has been able to adequately identify and evaluate so far.


There are concerns this revolution could ultimately leave the world dependent on data-fed machines and ungoverned algorithms, devoid of ethical, moral, or philosophical principles.


This ‘Internet’ age we live in today makes interrogating these issues more pressing.


The Internet confirms information through data over human ‘knowledge’. Individuals turn into data, and data becomes the order of the day.


The Internet confirms information through data over human ‘knowledge’. Individuals turn into data, and data becomes the order of the day.


As Internet users we mostly look for information relevant to our immediate needs. Search engine algorithms then gain the ability to predict individual preferences, allowing other algorithms to customise information to be used later on for political and commercial purposes.


We are seeing social networks at times become places of dispute and conflict, provoking anger and frustration. The speed of information distribution over-rides critical reflection. In some cases, Internet platforms encourage radical ‘clickbait’ thinking rather than intelligent consideration.


Quantum Mayors


What next? I have previously discussed the possibility of future ‘Quantum Mayors’ – perhaps in an increasingly automated world of growing frustration with politicians, the logical conclusion is seeing the job performed by robots, based solely on data and artificial intelligence, so as to maximise the efficiency of processes, particularly in cities.


This is not a road we want to go down. We have already seen glimpses of how damaging this could be for politics, business, friendships, relationships and, ultimately, society.


This is the ideal time to launch a ’Hippocratic Oath’ for the technology industry. It is the time to define the rules of conduct, making it impossible to develop algorithms which are devoid of ’emotions’ and ’values’.


This is the ideal time to launch a ’Hippocratic Oath’ for the technology industry.


Human intelligence is still dominant. While the world races to master artificial intelligence and we scramble to gather data, whether it’s for security reasons (facial recognition) or trading personal information in return for benefits (social score), this is the time for humanity fight to promote philosophical thinking through technology, rather than the other way around.


We can still win the race, but time is running out.


PS: No AI was used in the production of this article!


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