A Hippocratic Oath for artificial intelligence practitioners

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Oren Etzioni

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Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Oren Etzioni is an entrepreneur and CEO of the non-profit Allen Institute for AI.

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In the foreword to Microsoft’s recent book, The Future Computed, executives Brad Smith and Harry Shum proposed that Artificial Intelligence (AI) practitioners highlight their ethical commitments by taking an oath analogous to the Hippocratic Oath sworn by doctors for generations. In the past, much power and responsibility over life and death was concentrated in the hands of doctors. Now, this ethical burden is increasingly shared by the builders of AI software.

Of course, AI is not the first technology to confer great responsibility on its designers, not by a long shot. Cloud computing, smartphones, social media platforms, and Internet of Things devices have already transformed how we communicate, work, shop, and socialize. These technologies gather unprecedented  data streams leading to formidable challenges around privacy, profiling, manipulation, and personal safety. It is these issues that AI, if not developed responsibly, will further amplify.

Future AI advances in medicine, transportation, manufacturing, robotics, simulation, augmented reality, virtual reality, military applications, dictate that AI be developed from a higher moral ground today.

In response, I edited the modern version of the medical oath to address the key ethical challenges that AI researchers and engineers face due to AI’s impact on weapons, safety, privacy, jobs, and more. I call on our universities to have their students swear this oath as part of their graduation into the field of AI. Of course, an oath is far short of a panacea, but it reminds us of the values we hold dear.

The oath is as follows:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those scientists and engineers in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the humanity, all measures required, avoiding those twin traps of over-optimism and uniformed pessimism.

I will remember that there is an art to AI as well as science, and that human concerns outweigh technological ones.

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life using AI, all thanks. But it may also be within AI’s power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty and the limitations of AI. Above all, I must not play at God nor let my technology do so.

I will respect the privacy of humans for their personal data are not disclosed to AI systems so that the world may know.

I will consider the impact of my work on fairness both in perpetuating historical biases, which is caused by the blind extrapolation from past data to future predictions, and in creating new conditions that increase economic or other inequality.

My AI will prevent harm whenever it can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

My AI will seek to collaborate with people for the greater good, rather than usurp the human role and supplant them.

I will remember that I am not encountering dry data, mere zeros and ones, but human beings, whose interactions with my AI software may affect the person’s freedom, family, or economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.

The oath is focused on AI, but much of it applies more broadly to all computer software and hardware.  In the words of Brad Smith and Harry Shum’s: “it’s not only what computers can do but what computers should do!”

Computers should be designed and built by people who have this oath in mind.

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