Artificial intelligence has a power problem. Look at the modern trends to:
In all of these, AI is exploiting the more vulnerable members of society, while maintaining the power and wealth of an elite.
In all of my applications, I’ve hoped to punch up, designing applications that help individuals resist the power complexities of their world and workplaces. As I said about educational technology:
My rule has always been: ed tech needs to be like comedy — always punch up, never punch down. Empower those without power, or you’re doing it wrong.— Stuart Watt (@morungos) March 19, 2021
Comedy can break this rule. The trickster can confront and ignore social rules, and that’s a large part of what keeps society vibrant and effective.
The problem for AI is, it’s more like Mr Punch than modern comedy. like his Italian original Pulcinella and French counterpart Polichinelle, Mr Punch is an ambiguous and violent character, both abusive and murderous. He’s the ultimate trickster: to Mr Punch, anyone and anything is fair game, so long as he wins.
And Mr Punch, intriguingly, is even performed by a “professor” – just like AI companies with their “team of PhDs”.
Developers of AI applications have an ethical choice – whose side are they on. Are they helping those in wealth and power to continue? Are they creating workplaces that resemble sausage machines? Or are they helping those in need, the disadvantaged, those without the power to defend themselves against abuse.
In a word, are these applications punching up or punching down?
I have no sympathy for the AI trickster maintaining the power of those who already have it, abusing the vulnerable, or simply acting as an agent of chaos.
But I have a lot of sympathy for the trickster when he’s confronting or exposing abuse of power, or using his slapstick to beat the rich.
As Mr Punch said: “That’s the way to do it.”