Ethics and “AI”

On the Lawyers Guns and Money blog, Abigail Nussbaum writes:

“The companies that make AI — which is, to establish our terms right at the outset, large language models that generate text or images in response to natural language queries — have a problem. Their product is dubiously legal, prohibitively expensive (which is to say, has the kind of power and water requirements that are currently being treated as externalities and passed along to the general populace, but which in a civilized society would lead to these companies’ CEOs being dragged out into the street by an angry mob), and it objectively does not work. All of these problems are essentially intractable.”

What interests me here is how she focuses in on the main ethical problem with “AI” — the huge environmental impact of “AI.” Yes, it is evil that the “AI” companies steal people’s writing and steal people’s artwork. Yes, it is evil that the plutocrats want to have “AI” replace real humans (though as Nussbaum points out, if you factor in the real environmental costs, human labor is cheaper than “AI”). Yes, it is evil that “AI” is a product that doesn’t provide consistently good results. Yes, it is evil that”AI” is another way that the plutocrats can steal your personal data.

But here we are in the middle of an ecological crisis, and “AI” uses huge amounts of energy, and huge amounts of fresh water for cooling. “AI” is an environmental disaster. That is the real ethical problem.

Another alleged genocide

The attention of the United States remains firmly fixed on alleged genocide in Gaza. But another alleged genocide has received little or no notice. Human Rights Watch alleges that a genocide has been committed in Sudan. The BBC reports:

“A genocide may have been committed in the West Darfur city of El Geneina in one of the worst atrocities of the year-long Sudanese civil war, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It says ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed against ethnic Massalit and non-Arab communities in the city by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and its Arab allies. The report calls for sanctions against those responsible for the atrocities, including the RSF leader, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti. The UN says about 15,000 people are feared to have been killed in El Geneina last year.”

Here’s the full BBC story. Be warned: it makes for unpleasant reading.

The reason I mention this alleged genocide is that wars and violence in sub-Saharan Africa don’t seem to get much attention in the US. Take for example the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC has close to three quarters of the world’s cobalt reserves, and cobalt is a key ingredient in the lithium ion batteries that the U.S. and other countries are counting on the halt global climate change. Yet we rarely hear about this war in the US, and there are no protests calling for divestment from companies that profit from access to cheap cobalt for their lithium-ion batteries. Similarly, little attention has been paid in the US to the Mahgreb insurgency in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and other nearby countries, even though al-Qaeda is behind much of the violence. Perhaps Americans have grown weary of hearing about al-Qaeda, but I would have expected a bit more media and social media attention paid to a conflict featuring a stated enemy of the US. Or what about the conflict in Ethiopia which began in 2018 and may now be slowly winding down — estimates of the death toll vary from 180,000 at the low end to over 600,000. I saw no widespread outrage in the US over the atrocities committed in that conflict.

So why does the war in Gaza and Israel draw so much attention? I suspect this is partly it’s because psychologically we humans have a limited capacity for compassion. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and if you’re paying attention to Ukraine and Gaza/Israel, you probably don’t have much compassion left over for alleged genocide in Sudan. I suspect the lack of attention is also due in part to the fact that most people in the US have little interest in what happens in Africa. When I’m looking for news and information on Africa, I don’t find much on US news outlets or US social media; I have to go to the BBC. But I don’t really have an answer to this question, except maybe to say that we in the US reserve the right to choose which atrocities we pay attention to.

Another view of war

Vera Brittain served as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse during the First World War, serving in Malta, France, and London. Having seen the horrors of the “Great War” first hand — and after having her fiance, her brother, and her two best male friends die in the war — she became a committed pacifist. In 1937, while the threat of another European war kept growing, she said this in a pamphlet published by the Peace Pledge Union:

“I hold war to be a crime against humanity, whoever fights it, and against whomever it is fought.”

[Quoted in “Vera Mary Brittain,” Poetry Foundation website, accessed 29 April 2024.]

On average, Amazon charges you 29% more than they should

Maybe Amazon has the lowest online prices (maybe), but odds are that if you shop from Amazon you’ll pay more than you should.

Legal scholars from Boston University have been researching Amazon’s anti-competitive practices. They have documented how Amazon manipulates buyers into paying 29% more, on average, than they should be paying:

“As one of many examples, we present the first evidence that Amazon’s search results systematically bury the lowest priced items even if they have high ratings.(18) We find, for instance, that the best deal on the first page—factoring in ratings and price—was on average located in the seventeenth slot, where few consumers look.(19) Moreover, consumers who chose the first relevant item returned in the search results would have paid on average 29% more than if they had located the best deal.(20) One of the reasons these findings are important is that more than half of Amazon’s regular customers always purchase the top result provided.(21) And filtering the search results by ‘Price: Low to High’ does not solve these problems on most searches, particularly since this feature still ignores unit price and shipping costs.” Rory Van Loo & Nikita Aggarwal, Amazon’s Pricing Paradox (Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 2023), pp. 4-5.

Footnotes 18 and 21 in this paragraph give essential information to help understand how Amazon manipulates your behvior to get you to pay more:

“(18) Our findings, posted to SSRN in May of 2023, build on previous research showing that Amazon and other online companies also manipulate consumers and engage in behavioral pricing by not displaying shipping costs or by preferencing their own items. See, e.g., Glenn Ellison & Sara Fisher Ellison, Search, Obfuscation, and Price Elasticities on the Internet, 77 ECONOMETRICA 427, 449 (2009) (using purchase data to show that online third-party sellers of computer parts can raise prices by 6% to 9% through obfuscation strategies, such as hiding the shipping costs); Julia Angwin & Surya Mattu, Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, PROPUBLICA (Sept. 20, 2016, 8:00 AM),’t (analyzing 250 items, each with multiple options for which vendor sells it, and finding that Amazon’s product pages push items fulfilled by Amazon to the “buy box,” even though once shipping costs are added that item would be on average 20% more expensive than the cheapest alternative); Adrianne Jeffries & Leon Yin, Amazon Puts Its Own “Brands” First Above Better-Rated Products, THE MARKUP (Oct. 14, 2021), (finding that Amazon systematically puts its own products at the top of search results, without looking at the price impact). Unlike our research, Ellison and Ellison were focused on behavior by the end seller rather than the platform and did not empirically study Amazon, Angwin and Mattu focused on obfuscation in a specific item’s product page rather than in Amazon search results, and Jeffries and Yin do not measure the extent of burying or higher prices paid as a result of self-preferencing….
(19) See infra Part I.B.
(20) Id.
(21) FEEDVISOR, THE 2019 AMAZON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR REPORT 14, 16 (2019) (‘For those who buy products on Amazon daily or almost everyday, more than half [54%] always buy the first product listed on Amazon’s search engine results page [SERP].’)”

Not to put too fine a point on it, Amazon is deliberately misleading its customers in order to squeeze more money out of them. Buying from Amazon is a sucker’s game, where in the long run the consumer always loses. (If you don’t want to read the entire scholarly article, Cory Doctorow summarizes some of the key points here.)

Yet another reason why friends don’t let friends buy from Amazon.

Still going on

In 1977, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an introduction for her anti-war novel The Word for World Is Forest — a novel which she had begun writing in 1968. In the 1977 introduction, she said:

“1968 was a bitter year for those who opposed the [Vietnam] war. The lies and hypocrises doubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoilation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man.’ The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.”

Today, in 2023, the connection between war and environmental exploitation is still in place. Sad to say, humanity is still dominated by the ethic of exploitation.

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report

The ongoing effects

Last night I was trying to explain to Carol about the lingering effects of COVID burnout on the helping professions. She pointed out that many trends that were supposedly caused by COVID were simply existing trends that accelerated during lockdown. But I’m pretty sure that it actually was COVID that contributed to increased burnout in the helping professions.

The healthcare professions are an obvious example. During the first year of the COVID pandemic, doctors, nurses, and others who worked directly with COVID patients saw an increased workload, and an increased risk of infection. There were also healthcare professionals who had a very different experience of COVID — I knew a dermatologist who saw a substantial decrease in their workload during lockdown, although that decrease brought separate concerns of declining income, etc. On the whole, though, a significant number of health professionals left their profession, and reports are that there’s still a labor shortage in much of the healthcare system.

Mental health professionals saw their workload peak a bit later in the pandemic, as many people began to have mental health problems isolation caused by lockdown. We’re still seeing a high rate of depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental health problems, and mental health professionals may still be feeling overwhelmed by the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic. The end result is that someone seeking mental health care can wait weeks for an appointment.

I know less about other helping professions, but I suspect that other professions also saw increased burnout. For example, it seems likely that many social workers — depending on their specialty — also experienced burnout during COVID due to increased workload and increased job pressures.

This brings us to clergy. From what I’m seeing and hearing, clergy are also subject to COVID burnout, just like the other helping professions. In 2021, 42% of clergy reported considering leaving ministry. I suspect there were several reasons for this. Sociologist Scott Thuma has outlined some of the stresses on clergy during the pandemic: increased conflict in the congregation, increased demand for food and other assistance, increased mental health problems, and learning new ways to do ministry. I’ve watched as more Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers than usual have left the profession over the past couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn other UU ministers are just quiet quitting.

Beyond all this, all people in the helping professions can experience the trauma or secondary trauma that everyone in society is experiencing. The epidemic of mental illness that began during lockdown continues today — we’re all feeling the effects.

I know I’m still feeling the effects. I had to put in some extra hours this week. This is normal for ministers; some weeks we have to work long hours, other weeks there’s less for us to do. Pre-COVID, I had no problem working a few extra hours. But this week, those extra hours really tired me out; I don’t have the reserves of energy I used to have pre-COVID.

I don’t have a call to action for you. Nor do I have an easy solution for clergy burnout. Nor do I mean to imply that clergy somehow have it worse than anyone else in society. I think my only point is that we all need to be understanding of each other’s ongoing stress, as the effects of the pandemic continue.

Let us name it … ASS

People talk about “artificial intelligence.” They get corrected by people who say, It’s not intelligence, it’s “machine learning.” But actually machines don’t learn either. All this false terminology isn’t serving us well. It obscures the fact that the humans who design the machines are the intelligences at work here, and by calling the machines “AI” they get to dodge any responsibility for what they produce.

In a recent interview, science fiction author Ted Chiang came up with a good name for what’s going on:

” ‘There was an exchange on Twitter a while back where someone said, “What is artificial intelligence?” And someone else said, “A poor choice of words in 1954”,’ [Chiang] says. ‘And, you know, they’re right. I think that if we [science fiction authors] had chosen a different phrase for it, back in the ’50s, we might have avoided a lot of the confusion that we’re having now.’ So if he had to invent a term, what would it be? His answer is instant: applied statistics.” [quoted by, originally in, emphasis mine]

Applied statistics is a much better term to help us understand what is really going on here. When a computer running some ChatBot application comes up with text that seems coherent, the computer is not being intelligent — rather, the computer programmers had assembled a huge dataset to which they apply certain algorithms, and those algorithms create text from the vast dataset that sounds vaguely meaningful. The only intelligence (or lack thereof) involved lies in the humans who programmed the computer.

Which brings me to a recent news article from Religion News Service, written by Kirsten Grieshaber: “Can a chatbot preach a good sermon?” Jonas Simmerlein, identified in the article as a Christian theologian and philosopher at the University of Vienna, decided to set up a Christian worship service using ChatGPT. Anna Puzio, who studies the ethics of technology at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, attended this worship service. She correctly identified how this was an instance of applied statistics when she said: “We don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI [sic] has to represent as well.” In other words, applied statistics can act to average out meaningful and interesting differences of opinion. Puzio continued, “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion…. We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”

That’s exactly what Simmerlein was doing here: averaging out differences to create a single bland consensus. I can understand how a bland consensus might feel very attractive in this era of deep social divisions. But as someone who like Simmerlein is trained in philosophy and theology, I’ll argue that we do not get closer to truth by averaging out interesting differences into bland conformity; we get closer to truth by seriously engaging with people of differing opinions. This is because all humans (and all human constructions) are finite, and therefore fallible. No single human, and no human construction, will ever be able to reach absolute truth.

Finally, to close this brief rant, I’m going to give you an appropriate acronym for the phrase “applied statistics.” Not “AS,” that’s too much like “AI.” No, the best acronym for “Applied StatisticS” is … ASS.

Not only is it a memorable acronym, it serves as a reminder of what you are if you believe too much in the truth value of applied statistics.

The next frontier

We all know about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church. It continues to get a lot of press, to the point where if you say “child sexual abuse” a lot of people immediately think “Catholic church.” Which isn’t all that fair. While the Catholic sex abuse crisis has gotten the most publicity (and honestly, it deserves all the publicity it has gotten), it’s pretty clear that other institutions have their own sex abuse crises. The Boy Scouts come to mind, again because they’ve gotten a lot of publicity. But I’m willing to bet that the sexual abuse crisis goes beyond religion and scouting….

I suspect the next big frontier for the revelation of sexual abuse could be in sports. I’ve been thinking about this as I read about what’s happening in India. Olympic medalists have accused a politically-connected wrestling coach with child sexual abuse. There’s the usual denial and obfuscation. Eventually the coach has to step down from his coaching duties, but he doesn’t get arrested or prosecuted. The Olympic medalists engage in public protests, and the government arrests them instead of the former coach.

I’m willing to bet that school and youth sports provides many opportunities for sexual predators on the prowl. Many school sports programs have little accountability to anyone outside of the tight little world of sports — too often, coaches are essentially free from oversight by school administrators, and no one else is trying to hold them accountable. Some youth sports leagues might have even less accountability. When you hear coaches screaming and swearing at the kids during practices, you begin to wonder. If I acted like that towards kids in a church program, I’d lose my job — so if coaches can get away with that kind of abusive behavior, I have to wonder.

Sports is even more sacrosanct than religion. I’m not expecting any movement towards reform to come from sporting organizations (remember how everyone covered for Larry Nasser?). We might wish that more athletes blow the whistle, as is happening in India — but look at the price they’re paying.

I now believe the best solution is uniform child protection regulations that cover all youth programs, like California’s Assembly Bill 506, enacted in 2022. AB506 has some major problems — honestly, it’s not a well-written law — but the fact that it applies to all youth programs is really important. Sports programs have to comply, along with churches and schools. Of course, laws like AB506 still doesn’t address sexual abuse of persons over age 18. But it’s a start, a step in the right direction.

The meaning of justice

From the novel Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, a native Hong Konger. The novel is set in Hong Kong in the year 2014, and follows the adventures of Au Nga-Yee as she tries to find out why her sister Siu-Man committed suicide by jumping from the window of their apartment. Without spoiling things for you, I can safely tell you that the plot involves social media, the Dark Web, and the tech industry. Nga-Ye has to hire N, a hacker and a most unusual detective, to figure out what really happened to Siu-Man.

Late in the book, N, the detective, reflect on his motivations for continuing to work as a detective:

“The word he hated most in the world was ‘justice.’ Which wasn’t to say he didn’t know the difference between good and evil — but he understood that rather than simplistic morality, most conflict in the world arose from differences of opinion, with both sides raising the flag of justice and claiming to be on the side of reason. This allowed them to justify the most underhanded means as ‘a necessary evil’ to defeat the other side — the law of the jungle, essentially. N had a deep understanding of this. He had money, status, power, and talent, so he could do pretty much whatever he wanted and other people would see him as an avatar of ‘justice’ — but he knew that keeping others down in the name of justice is another form of bullying.” (Chan Ho-Kei, trans. Jeremy Tiang, Second Sister [2017; trans. Grove Atlantic, 2020])

While this passage merely represents one character in a murder mystery talking to himself, there is some truth in what this character says. It is all too easy to misuse the word “justice.”