Should art using AI ever strive to be ethical?

The view from Digital Catapult’s space in London

For me the sign of a really good event is when I come away with more thought and questions than I had before I arrived. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event organised by the Open Data Institute (ODI) and Digital Catapult in connection with their ongoing Hybrid Landscapes exhibit in London. The event, titled “What does ethical AI look like?” focused on the use of artificial intelligence in the arts, the necessity of implementing ethics guidelines in AI and whether art itself should ever strive to be ethical. The five panelists included 3 artists: Suzanne Treister, a pioneer of digital art with 25 years of experience of working with emerging technologies, Alison Craighead, who has worked with video, sound and the internet to explore how technology changes the way we perceive the world around us and Lewis Bush photographer, whose groundbreaking work explores ideas about the way power is created and exercised in the modern world. Also in the panel were Anna Scott, the ODI Head of Content and Libby Kinsey, Digital Catapult’s AI and Machine learning expert.

Artists working with data and artists who’ve developed an interest in AI are very much aware of the ethical questions AI has brought to the surface. Data ethics is a very hot topic these days and its failures are the cause of much of the public’s resentment towards AI. That, and of course the fear of “machines taking over the world”, a statement that predictably made all the panelists laugh. We are not anywhere close to being ruled by machines of course, in fact the the worst thing that’s been happening is being ruined by bad data.

A more interesting question seems to be whether artists that work with AI and data should be worried about ethical implications at all. If good and beneficial AI must be ethical, fair and sensitive to diversity (a statement generally accepted by corporations and agencies using and regulating AI), should this be true for art using AI as well? As the panelists agreed, what has set art and artists apart from industries and all other people for millennia is a shameless determination to be different, unregulated, and often very biased indeed. At times in history art was (and in some places still is) the cloak under which people could freely bypass society’s moral and ethical boundaries. Whether it’s art that uses a paintbrush, the written word, the camera or intelligent machines and big data, shouldn’t this remain the same? Are ethical boundaries essential to survive and thrive for artists using AI in the 21st century, or are these boundaries or regulations the death or art itself?

The AI ethics debate is an important one to raise in art as well

No one has the answers to these questions yet, because we’ve only just begun to raise and explore them. But it’s absolutely necessary to go deeper into these channels. Artificial intelligence is here to stay, and it will continue to work its way into the fabric of life in which art is an essential part. Whether art can stay within ethical boundaries or whether it should defy them… remains to be seen.

And as I said, I walked out of Digital Catapult with much more questions than I walked in with but I’m certain I was not the only one!

Bogi Szalacsi is a Senior Associate with infoNation, based in London. You can contact her at bogi@infonation.io and follow her on Twitter: @infoNation5.