AI and S/he

There was hope that artificial intelligence (AI) would be a better version of us. Well, so far that seems to have failed. Let us take gender bias as a pervasive feature even in modern societies, let alone the societies in medieval or industrial age. AI tends to uphold gender biases and might even reinforce them. Why? A recent paper by Kotek, Dockum, Sun (2023) explains the sources for this bias in straightforward terms. AI is based on Large Language Models. These LLMs are trained using big detailed data sets. Through the training on true observed data like detailed data on occupation by gender as observed in the U.S. in 2023, the models tend to have a status quo bias.
This means they abstract from a dynamic evolution of occupations and the potential evolution of gender stereotypes over years. Even deriving growing or decreasing trends of gender dominance in a specific occupation the models have little ground for reasonable or adequate assessment of these trends. Just like thousands of social scientists before them. Projections into the future or assuming a legal obligation of equal representation of gender might still not be in line with human perception of such trends.
Representing women in equal shares among soldiers, 50% of men as secretaries in offices appears rather utopian in 2024, but any share in-between is probably arbitrary and differs widely between countries. Even bigger data sets may account for this in some future day. For the time being these models based on “true” data sets will have a bias towards the status quo, however unsatisfactory this might be.
Now let us just develop on this research finding. Gender bias is only one source of bias among many other forms of bias or discriminatory practices. Ethnicity, age or various abilities complicate the underlying “ground truth” (term used in paper) represented in occupation data sets. The authors identify 4 major shortcoming concerning gender bias in AI based on LLMs: (1) The pronouns s/he were picked even more often than in Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational gender representations; (2) female stereotypes were more amplified than male ones; (3) ambiguity of gender attribution was not flagged as an issue; (4) when found out to be inaccurate LLMs returned “authoritative” responses, which were “often inaccurate”.
These findings have the merit to provide a testing framework for gender bias of AI. Many other biases or potential biases have to be investigated in a similarly rigorous fashion before AI will give us an authoritarian answer, no I am free of any bias in responding to your request. Full stop.

Ethics of posterity

We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors; we are borrowing it from our descendants. (native American saying). Adeline Johns-Putra (2019) states this early in her book on “Climate change and the novel.” Her concern is how to think and write about the ethics of posterity. Approaches of ethics in the sense of parental care (for the planet) or motherhood environmentalism do not suffice in view of overpopulation of our planet. Shifting our identity away from toxic production and consumption is advocated in many novels. Science and science fiction offer many dystopian examples.
De Shalit (1995) wrote early on why posterity matters. It is not the standard of living of contemporaries that matters but we should consider ourselves as a part of a transgenerational community. The time horizon of our decisions matters. In pursuing arguments by John Rawls who re-established a contractionalist perspective on justice, we have to include future generations into our contractual obligations. Following this approach we might arrive at Brundtland’s perspective on the ethics of posterity which is called sufficientarianism in opposition to simple utilitarianism. In sufficientarianism we owe future generations a just and decent living or at least the possibility to have similar starting conditions. Shifting beyond the apocalyptic view of environmental disasters Adeline Johns-Putra (2019) brings to the forefront that we have to substantially lengthen  our time horizon both for consequences of climate change and for dealing with it, albeit the fact that most destructive practices operate much faster than the re-establishing of greater biodiversity.
P.S.:Thanks to the curators of the Lese Lounge Staatsbibliothek Berlin for ease of access to the literature.
(Image: Natur & Kultur in “Extreme tension: Art between Politics and Society” Collection of the Nationalgalerie 1945-2000“. 2024-1)


Wir alle wissen, dass in Deutschland die Verwendung von Symbolen der Nationalsozialisten zum Beispiel in Fotos strafrechtlich verfolgt werden kann. Das trifft auch auf vermeintlich nur private Verwendung zu. Dazu hat das Bundesverfassungsgericht eine hilfreiche Erläuterung und Auflistung erstellt (Link dazu hier).

Das Oberverwaltungsgericht von Rheinland-Pfalz hat bereits klargestellt, dass eine Unterstützung der Reichsbürger für Beamte zum Verlust des Ruhegehalts führt. (Pressemitteilung OVG RF) Die Demokratie hat sich Mittel für ihre aktive Verteidigung geschaffen. Diese rechtsstaatlichen Mittel müssen wir noch entschiedener einsetzen.

Hilfreich kann das Weiterlesen auf der Konrad Adenauer Stiftung dazu sein. Dort wird in allgemeinverständlicher Art beschrieben, dass die zur Schau Stellung von Teilen der Uniform und Symbolen seit Gründung der Bundesrepublik verboten ist.

Meist steht hinter der Verwendung dieser Symbole keine Dummheit, sondern eine bewusste Aggression oder gar Boshaftigkeit gegenüber anderen Menschen. Menschenverachtung der Nationalsozialisten lässt sich nicht entschuldigen, damals nicht und heute nicht. Image: Edgar Degas d’après Rembrandt 2023 BnF.

Edgar Degas d’après Rembrandt 2023 BnF.

Teaching Ethics

Ethics is frequently taught by referring to reference cases, moral dilemmas and readings on the evolution of the discipline as some ethical issues arise due to technological innovations. Some fundamental ethical principles pertain to professional standards or so-called codes of conduct. This is also part of the sociology of professions which includes the societal and political role professions and professionals. The medical profession has been subject to ample research already. And yet it is important to notice that there is a renewed effort to include into the teaching of ethics “The hard truths about medicine and the Holocaust”. (AMA J Ethics. 2021;23(1): E59-63. doi: 10.1001/amajethics.2021.59). Eugenics were practices well before WWII. “Legal coercive sterilization, which progressed to the notorious “euthanasia” (medically sanctioned murder) program” (p.59) were the beginning. Medical doctors were not reluctant to implement the Nazi medical doctrines. “Most joined eagerly, earlier, and in much greater numbers than other professionals” (Chelouche, 2021; Kater MH, 1989). Physicians made the horrors of Nazi ethics efficient in its implementation. Nazi physicians had a strict ethical code which priorities obedience to the state rather than to the individual.
Research and experiments conducted by medical doctors during Nazi rule is analysed by Weindling (2015). In summary he states “Nazi experiments were accepted forms of science at the time, conducted not only in concentration camps but also in hospitals and clinics across Germany”.  This concise overview of recent research by Tessa Chelouche in this field is not only important to teaching ethics in the medical and care professions, but it is of high relevance to much broader audiences and many more professions like judges. Only the awareness and guarding against a renewed failure to respect human values and human rights of the individual allow us to advance humanity. Decentralisation of power, checks and balances, professions following widely accepted principles rather than authoritarian rules can avoid another failure. Teaching about this is a “conditio sine qua non” and not a nice to have part of the curriculum in schools as well as professional colleges.

Energy Ethics

Around the topic of energy there many ethical issues that urgently need sorting out. Carlos Diaz-Rodriguez and co-authors have provided a sound basis for such ethical considerations. To leave the disastrous path of energy provision through polluting fossil fuels and, additionally very risky, nuclear energy, they propose a departure from the principles and values that have guided us into a dead end. In their opinion we suffer from a mistaken belief to be able to control in extremis, through scientific methods, the forces of nature. In ethics this mistaken belief has roots in religious beliefs that mankind is mandated to make the earth subordinate to its own will. The authors propose to overcome this old paradigm with a new paradigm. This builds on the (1) “precautionary principle”, (2) justice as equity, (3) protection and the (4) principle of responsibility.
Most European readers of philosophy and social science are familiar with these principles. The virtue of the paper is to expose and juxtapose these principles in a clear format and a stringent application to the ethics of energy (production as well as consumption of it).
The precautionary principle is part of the European treaty on the functioning of the European Union Art. 191, but its implementation on energy issues reveals that it is a tiger without teeth. Younger generations across the globe are right to claim a more forceful implementation of this principle.
The perspective of justice as equity is bringing in later born generations as well into the balance costs and benefits of “cheap energy today” but huge costs of dismantling, repairing, stocking deferred to the future.
The protection principle refers to the loss of biodiversity and exploiting resources in areas of world heritage, for example.
The principle of responsibility goes beyond the judicial and economic principle that the person, company or state causing damage through exploitation of resources, and in producing energy with it, has to pay for repairing those damages.
As this is hard to achieve in real terms, there is an urgent need to reiterate the responsibility principle at all levels. Despite the inefficiencies of legal systems, the international legal order in particular, there is no way around than to insist on responsibility from the individual behaviour, company strategic goals as well as objectives set by nation states and international organisations. The Paris agreement and all COP XY conferences only prove the fact that irresponsibility continues to be a guiding principle.
Maximalist positions as well as continuing like decades before is failing people on earth. Organising a discourse on these ethical issues is a first step, but we have to be able to address negationists as well.
The missing principle so far is the solidarity principle. Without a firm commitment to intergenerational and international solidarity we shall remain unable to solve the ethical puzzle. It is high time to organise solidarity related to the field of energy.
(Image: “The fallen tree of knowledge” by Fabrice Samyn. Exposition in Yerres, France 2021-11)