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Ethics & AI: The Basics

By Jim Selman with Shae Hadden

Does AI have ethics? Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is still a dream. But generative AI (GenAI) influences and impacts our business choices and practices today.

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash


I spent the morning in conversation with my friend Wade Chumney, an associate professor of business ethics and law at California State University. We were preparing to be interviewed on a program sponsored by Ethico, an organization committed to elevating ethics in the workplace through a variety of software tools. The topic we’ll be discussing is the dream of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and how the practicalities of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) will influence or impact ethical choices and practices in business.

Wade and I are aligned on three key points:

  1. AI is not just another technology.
    Its potential for good or evil is unprecedented and runs the full spectrum from being an existential threat to humanity to being the means for unifying humanity and helping solve many intractable problems that already threaten our existence.
  2. It is important to distinguish between morals, ethics and values.
    Morals refer to what a society sanctions as acceptable behaviour. Ethics refer to rules or guidelines that establish right and wrong conduct for individuals and groups in that society. Ethical standards are, therefore, generated and maintained by the community. Values are beliefs held by an individual that motivate them to act in certain ways.Generally, people adopt the values and follow the ethical guidelines of their particular culture. How an individual behaves and the choices they make can neither be separated from the influence of these morals and ethical standards on them, nor from the impact of their actions on others.
  3. A key question is whether artificial intelligence is even capable of making ethical or unethical choices.
    Our view is that, while anything is possible in theory, and while GenAI can be programmed to follow rules, the algorithms do not possess the capacity for “ethical self-reflection”. GenAI cannot assess whether its ‘output’ is good or bad. GenAI is generally unable to distinguish the context within which it is communicating.

In other words, AI is analogous to a sociopath who lacks moral or ethical awareness. AI is not an ethical Being.

Large Language Models (LLMs) are now capable of generating human-like responses, including everything from ‘how to’ scripts and practical resumes, reports and analyses to songs and descriptive, informative and authoritative narratives on virtually any subject. In fact, in 2014, a bot won the Turing Challenge for the first time.* Moreover, because GenAI’s capabilities encompass anything humans can accomplish in language, it can generate an emotional response in humans and even intimacy in certain scenarios.

No one knows where this technology is going or where it will be in 10 years. Given the speed at which it is appropriating “human” expressions (such speech, images, art and song) and evolving at an exponentially exponential rate, anything we might say would be mere speculation.

What we can say is that GenAI now produces broad narratives that can—and often do—appear to be indistinguishable from human-derived narratives. By narrative, I mean how ‘reality’ occurs for human beings. And human behavior is generally correlated to how our reality occurs for us.

That brings up a big question: how do you decide what is right or wrong in a particular situation when you cannot determine whether the reality you’re observing is being created by artificial intelligence or by human beings?

The answer is you can’t.

You have no way of knowing with any degree of certainty. Perhaps this is why Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General, said, “The world needs stronger ethical rules for artificial intelligence: this is the challenge of our time.”** 


*Doug Aamoth, “Interview with Eugene Goostman, the Fake Kid Who Passed the Turing Test”. Time, June 2014. Accessed June 23, 2023 at https://time.com/2847900/eugene-goostman-turing-test/.

**“Artificial Intelligence: UNESCO Calls on All Governments to Implement Global Ethical Framework without Delay”. UNESCO press release, March 30, 2023. Accessed June 23, 2023 at https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/artificial-intelligence-unesco-calls-all-governments-implement-global-ethical-framework-without.


© 2024 Jim Selman