We Need to Save Ignorance From AI

Christina Leuker and Wouter van den Bos in Nautilus:  “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy….

Recently, though, the psychologist Ralph Hertwig and legal scholar Christoph Engel have published an extensive taxonomy of motives for deliberate ignorance. They identified two sets of motives, in particular, that have a particular relevance to the need for ignorance in the face of AI.

The first set of motives revolves around impartiality and fairness. Simply put, knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response. For example, peer reviews of academic papers are usually anonymous. Insurance companies in most countries are not permitted to know all the details of their client’s health before they enroll; they only know general risk factors. This type of consideration is particularly relevant to AI, because AI can produce highly prejudicial information….(More)”.