As part of the Configuring ethical AI in healthcare project, we are analysing how AI is mobilised as an innovative move and configured in other domains. Here are some initial thoughts:

It has been more than half a century now that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has entered the public consciousness cloaked in an air of shock and awe. Visions of futuristic utopias where intelligent agents would facilitate our lives every step of the way or where our mortality fears would be eased by downloadable brains and other technological solutions have been accompanied by fears that the uncannily human technological companions will eventually turn against us, now more intelligent and hence arguably unable to contain and control. But as the robots are proving more awkward than intelligent and the masculinist visions of a ‘strong AI’ more and more difficult to realise, a different story is also coming to the foreground. One, far more mundane, yet no less socially disruptive.

Indeed the story has shifted from utopian/dystopian masculinist visions of AI to more mundane instrumental visions of tools helping us address key everyday problems with advancements in healthcare, transport, security, policing, the humanitarian sector, social services, etc.

But all the promises of the benefits that AI can deliver are accompanied by warnings of the risks that such technologies also carry. And not without good reason. From data privacy violations, to discrimination and bias, to evidence of automated systems that entrench inequalities and target the poor (Eubanks 2018), there are plenty of valid reasons to be wary of these new technologies. And it is in this landscape that public commitments for an ethical and trustworthy AI strike a reassuring note.

Indeed, the ambition of AI visions is matched by the numerous public declarations of earnest commitments to ‘get this right for the benefit of all humanity’. These have led tovarious efforts such as the creation of a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in the UK (CDEI), the adoption for anAI for Humanity strategy in France, and the establishment of the global tech industry consortium, Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society which includes companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, among its partners.

Such high-profile commitments notwithstanding, as the recent collapse of Google’s ethics board demonstrates, this task is not proving easy leading me to wonder; has ethical AI become the holy grail of innovation – almost mythical in its existence yet powerful enough to capture the imagination of industry, academics and policy-makers alike?