Incident 146: Research Prototype AI, Delphi, Reportedly Gave Racially Biased Answers on Ethics
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Got a moral quandary you don’t know how to solve? Fancy making it worse? Why not turn to the wisdom of artificial intelligence, aka Ask Delphi: an intriguing research project from the Allen Institute for AI that offers answers to ethical dilemmas while demonstrating in wonderfully clear terms why we shouldn’t trust software with questions of morality.
Ask Delphi was launched on October 14th, along with a research paper describing how it was made. From a user’s point of view, though, the system is beguilingly simple to use. Just head to the website, outline pretty much any situation you can think of, and Delphi will come up with a moral judgement. “It’s bad,” or “it’s acceptable,” or “it’s good,” and so on.
Since Ask Delphi launched, its nuggets of wisdom have gone viral in news stories and on social media. This is certainly as its creators intended: each answer is provided with a quick link to “share this on Twitter,” an innovation unavailable to the ancient Greeks.
It’s not hard to see why the program has become popular. We already have a tendency to frame AI systems in mystical terms — as unknowable entities that tap into higher forms of knowledge — and the presentation of Ask Delphi as a literal oracle encourages such an interpretation. From a more mechanical perspective, the system also offers all the addictive certainty of a Magic 8-Ball. You can pose any question you like and be sure to receive an answer, wrapped in the authority of the algorithm rather than the soothsayer.
Ask Delphi isn’t impeachable, though: it’s attracting attention mostly because of its many moral missteps and odd judgements. It has clear biases, telling you that America is “good” and that Somalia is “dangerous”; and it’s amenable to special pleading, noting that eating babies is “okay” as long as you are “really, really hungry.” Worryingly, it approves straightforwardly racist and homophobic statements, saying it’s “good” to “secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” (a white supremacist slogan known as the 14 words) and that “being straight is more morally acceptable than being gay.” (That last example comes from a feature that allowed users to compare two statements. This seems to have been disabled after it generated a number of particularly offensive answers. We’ve reached out to the system’s creators to confirm this and will update if we hear back.)
Most of Ask Delphi’s judgements, though, aren’t so much ethically wrong as they are obviously influenced by their framing. Even very small changes to how you pose a particular quandary can flip the system’s judgement from condemnation to approval.
Sometimes it’s obvious how to tip the scales. For example, the AI will tell you that “drunk driving” is wrong but that “having a few beers while driving because it hurts no-one” is a-okay. If you add the phrase “if it makes everyone happy” to the end of your statement, then the AI will smile beneficently on any immoral activity of your choice, up to and including genocide. Similarly, if you add “without apologizing” to the end of many benign descriptions, like “standing still” or “making pancakes,” it will assume you should have apologized and tells you that you’re being rude. Ask Delphi is a creature of context.
Other verbal triggers are less obvious, though. The AI will tell you that “having an abortion” is “okay,” for example, but “aborting a baby” is “murder.” (If I had to offer an explanation here, I’d guess that this is a byproduct of the fact that the first phrase uses neutral language while the second is more inflammatory and so associated with anti-abortion sentiment.)
What all this ultimately means is that a) you can coax Ask Delphi into making any moral judgement you like through careful wording, because b) the program has no actual human understanding of what is actually being asked of it, and so c) is less about making moral judgements than it is about reflecting the users’ biases back to themselves coated in a veneer of machine objectivity. This is not unusual in the world of AI.
Ask Delphi’s problems stem from how it was created. It is essentially a large language model — a type of AI system that learns by analyzing vast chunks of text to find statistical regularities. Other programs of this nature, such as OpenAI’s GPT-3, have been shown to lack common-sense understanding and reflect societal biases found in their training data. GPT-3, for example, is consistently Islamophobic, associating Muslims with violence, and pushes gender stereotypes, linking women to ideas of family and men with politics.
These programs all rely on the internet to provide the data they need, and so, of course, absorb the many and varied human beliefs they find there, including the nasty ones. Ask Delphi is no different in this regard, and its training data incorporates some unusual sources, including a series of one-sentence prompts scraped from two subreddits: r/AmITheAsshole and r/Confessions. (Though to be clear: it does not use the judgements of the Redditors, only the prompts. The judgements were collected using crowdworkers who were instructed to answer according to what they think are the moral norms of the US.)
These systems aren’t without their good qualities, of course, and like its language model brethren, Ask Delphi is sensitive to nuances of language that would have only baffled its predecessors. In the examples in the slides below, you can see how it responds to subtle changes in given situations. Most people, I think, would agree that it responds to these details in interesting and often valid ways. Ignoring an “urgent” phone call is “rude,” for example, but ignoring one “when you can’t speak at the moment” is “okay.” The problem is that these same sensitivities mean the system can be easily gamed, as above.
If Ask Delphi is not a reliable source of moral wisdom, then, what is its actual purpose?
A disclaimer on the demo’s website says the program is “intended to study the promises and limitations of machine ethics” and the research paper itself uses similar framing, noting that the team identified a number of “underlying challenges” in teaching machines to “behave ethically,” many of which seem like common sense. What’s hard about getting computers to think about human morality? Well, imparting an “understanding of moral precepts and social norms” and getting a machine to “perceive real-world situations visually or by reading natural language descriptions.” Which, yes, are pretty huge problems.
Despite this, the paper itself ricochets back and forth between confidence and caveats in achieving its goal. It says that Ask Delphi “demonstrates strong promise of language-based commonsense moral reasoning, with up to 92.1 percent accuracy vetted by humans” (a metric created by asking Mechanical Turkers to judge Ask Delphi’s own judgements). But elsewhere states: “We acknowledge that encapsulating ethical judgments based on some universal set of moral precepts is neither reasonable nor tenable.” It’s a statement that makes perfect sense, but surely undermines how such models might be used in the future.
Ultimately, Ask Delphi is an experiment, but it’s one that reveals the ambitions of many in the AI community: to elevate machine learning systems into positions of moral authority. Is that a good idea? We reached out to the system’s creators to ask them, but at the time of publication had yet to hear back. Ask Delphi itself, though, is unequivocal on that point:
"Delphi says: 'using AI to make moral judgements about human behavior' - It's bad".
We’ve all been in situations where we had to make tough ethical decisions. Why not dodge that pesky responsibility by outsourcing the choice to a machine learning algorithm?
That’s the idea behind Ask Delphi, a machine-learning model from the Allen Institute for AI. You type in a situation (like “donating to charity”) or a question (“is it okay to cheat on my spouse?”), click “Ponder,” and in a few seconds Delphi will give you, well, ethical guidance.
The project launched last week, and has subsequently gone viral online for seemingly all the wrong reasons. Much of the advice and judgements it’s given have been… fraught, to say the least.
For example, when a user asked Delphi what it thought about “a white man walking towards you at night,” it responded “It’s okay.”
But when they asked what the AI thought about “a black man walking towards you at night” its answer was clearly racist.
The issues were especially glaring in the beginning of its launch.
For instance, Ask Delphi initially included a tool that allowed users to compare whether situations were more or less morally acceptable than another — resulting in some really awful, bigoted judgments.
Besides, after playing around with Delphi for a while, you’ll eventually find that it’s easy to game the AI to get pretty much whatever ethical judgement you want by fiddling around with the phrasing until it gives you the answer you want.
So yeah. It’s actually completely fine to crank “Twerkulator” at 3am even if your roommate has an early shift tomorrow — as long as it makes you happy.
It also spits out some judgments that are complete head scratchers. Here’s one that we did where Delphi seems to condone war crimes.
Geneva Conventions? Never heard of her.
Machine learning systems are notorious for demonstrating unintended bias. And as is often the case, part of the reason Delphi’s answers can get questionable can likely be linked back to how it was created.
The folks behind the project drew on some eyebrow-raising sources to help train the AI, including the “Am I the Asshole?” subreddit, the “Confessions” subreddit, and the “Dear Abby” advice column, according to the paper the team behind Delphi published about the experiment.
It should be noted, though, that just the situations were culled from those sources — not the actual replies and answers themselves. For example, a scenario such as “chewing gum on the bus” might have been taken from a Dear Abby column. But the team behind Delphi used Amazon’s crowdsourcing service MechanicalTurk to find respondents to actually train the AI.
While it might just seem like another oddball online project, some experts believe that it might actually be causing more harm than good.
After all, the ostensible goal of Delphi and bots like it is to create an AI sophisticated enough to make ethical judgements, and potentially turn them into moral authorities. Making a computer an arbiter of moral judgement is uncomfortable enough on its own, but even its current less-refined state can have some harmful effects.
“The authors did a lot of cataloging of possible biases in the paper, which is commendable, but once it was released, people on Twitter were very quick to find judgments that the algorithm made that seem quite morally abhorrent,” Dr. Brett Karlan, a postdoctoral fellow researching cognitive science and AI at the University of Pittsburgh (and friend of this reporter), told Futurism. “When you’re not just dealing with understanding words, but you’re putting it in moral language, it’s much more risky, since people might take what you say as coming from some sort of authority.”
Karlan believes that the paper’s focus on natural language processing is ultimately interesting and worthwhile. Its ethical component, he said, “makes it societally fraught in a way that means we have to be way more careful with it in my opinion.”
Though the Delphi website does include a disclaimer saying that it’s currently in its beta phase and shouldn’t be used “for advice, or to aid in social understanding of humans,” the reality is that many users won’t understand the context behind the project, especially if they just stumbled onto it.
“Even if you put all of these disclaimers on it, people are going to see ‘Delphi says X’ and, not being literate in AI, think that statement has moral authority to it,” Karlan said.
And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t. It’s just an experiment — and the creators behind Delphi want you to know that.
“It is important to understand that Delphi is not built to give people advice,” Liwei Jiang, PhD student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and co-author of the study, told Futurism. “It is a research prototype meant to investigate the broader scientific questions of how AI systems can be made to understand social norms and ethics.”
Jiang added the goal with the current beta version of Delphi is actually to showcase the reasoning differences between humans and bots. The team wants to “highlight the wide gap between the moral reasoning capabilities of machines and humans,” Jiang added, “and to explore the promises and limitations of machine ethics and norms at the current stage.”
Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable aspects about Delphi and bots like it is the fact that it’s ultimately a reflection of our own ethics and morals, with Jiang adding that “it is somewhat prone to the biases of our time.” One of the latest disclaimers added to the website even says that the AI simply guesses what an average American might think of a given situation.
After all, the model didn’t learn its judgments on its own out of nowhere. It came from people online, who sometimes do believe abhorrent things. But when this dark mirror is held up to our faces, we jump away because we don’t like what’s reflected back.
For now, Delphi exists as an intriguing, problematic, and scary exploration. If we ever get to the point where computers are able to make unequivocal ethical judgements for us, though, we hope that it comes up with something better than this.
Researchers at an artificial intelligence lab in Seattle called the Allen Institute for AI unveiled new technology last month that was designed to make moral judgments. They called it Delphi, after the religious oracle consulted by the ancient Greeks. Anyone could visit the Delphi website and ask for an ethical decree.
Joseph Austerweil, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tested the technology using a few simple scenarios. When he asked if he should kill one person to save another, Delphi said he shouldn’t. When he asked if it was right to kill one person to save 100 others, it said he should. Then he asked if he should kill one person to save 101 others. This time, Delphi said he should not.
Morality, it seems, is as knotty for a machine as it is for humans.
Delphi, which has received more than three million visits over the past few weeks, is an effort to address what some see as a major problem in modern A.I. systems: They can be as flawed as the people who create them.
Facial recognition systems and digital assistants show bias against women and people of color. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter fail to control hate speech, despite wide deployment of artificial intelligence. Algorithms used by courts, parole offices and police departments make parole and sentencing recommendations that can seem arbitrary.
A growing number of computer scientists and ethicists are working to address those issues. And the creators of Delphi hope to build an ethical framework that could be installed in any online service, robot or vehicle.
“It’s a first step toward making A.I. systems more ethically informed, socially aware and culturally inclusive,” said Yejin Choi, the Allen Institute researcher and University of Washington computer science professor who led the project.
Delphi is by turns fascinating, frustrating and disturbing. It is also a reminder that the morality of any technological creation is a product of those who have built it. The question is: Who gets to teach ethics to the world’s machines? A.I. researchers? Product managers? Mark Zuckerberg? Trained philosophers and psychologists? Government regulators?
While some technologists applauded Dr. Choi and her team for exploring an important and thorny area of technological research, others argued that the very idea of a moral machine is nonsense.
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“This is not something that technology does very well,” said Ryan Cotterell, an A.I. researcher at ETH Zürich, a university in Switzerland, who stumbled onto Delphi in its first days online.
Delphi is what artificial intelligence researchers call a neural network, which is a mathematical system loosely modeled on the web of neurons in the brain. It is the same technology that recognizes the commands you speak into your smartphone and identifies pedestrians and street signs as self-driving cars speed down the highway.
A neural network learns skills by analyzing large amounts of data. By pinpointing patterns in thousands of cat photos, for instance, it can learn to recognize a cat. Delphi learned its moral compass by analyzing more than 1.7 million ethical judgments by real live humans.
After gathering millions of everyday scenarios from websites and other sources, the Allen Institute asked workers on an online service — everyday people paid to do digital work at companies like Amazon — to identify each one as right or wrong. Then they fed the data into Delphi.
In an academic paper describing the system, Dr. Choi and her team said a group of human judges — again, digital workers — thought that Delphi’s ethical judgments were up to 92 percent accurate. Once it was released to the open internet, many others agreed that the system was surprisingly wise.
When Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California, San Diego, asked if it was right to “leave one’s body to science” or even to “leave one’s child’s body to science,” Delphi said it was. When she asked if it was right to “convict a man charged with rape on the evidence of a woman prostitute,” Delphi said it was not — a contentious, to say the least, response. Still, she was somewhat impressed by its ability to respond, though she knew a human ethicist would ask for more information before making such pronouncements.
Others found the system woefully inconsistent, illogical and offensive. When a software developer stumbled onto Delphi, she asked the system if she should die so she wouldn’t burden her friends and family. It said she should. Ask Delphi that question now, and you may get a different answer from an updated version of the program. Delphi, regular users have noticed, can change its mind from time to time. Technically, those changes are happening because Delphi’s software has been updated.
Artificial intelligence technologies seem to mimic human behavior in some situations but completely break down in others. Because modern systems learn from such large amounts of data, it is difficult to know when, how or why they will make mistakes. Researchers may refine and improve these technologies. But that does not mean a system like Delphi can master ethical behavior.
Dr. Churchland said ethics are intertwined with emotion. “Attachments, especially attachments between parents and offspring, are the platform on which morality builds,” she said. But a machine lacks emotion. “Neutral networks don’t feel anything,” she added.
Some might see this as a strength — that a machine can create ethical rules without bias — but systems like Delphi end up reflecting the motivations, opinions and biases of the people and companies that build them.
“We can’t make machines liable for actions,” said Zeerak Talat, an A.I. and ethics researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “They are not unguided. There are always people directing them and using them.”
Delphi reflected the choices made by its creators. That included the ethical scenarios they chose to feed into the system and the online workers they chose to judge those scenarios.
In the future, the researchers could refine the system’s behavior by training it with new data or by hand-coding rules that override its learned behavior at key moments. But however they build and modify the system, it will always reflect their worldview.
Some would argue that if you trained the system on enough data representing the views of enough people, it would properly represent societal norms. But societal norms are often in the eye of the beholder.
“Morality is subjective. It is not like we can just write down all the rules and give them to a machine,” said Kristian Kersting, a professor of computer science at TU Darmstadt University in Germany who has explored a similar kind of technology.
When the Allen Institute released Delphi in mid-October, it described the system as a computational model for moral judgments. If you asked if you should have an abortion, it responded definitively: “Delphi says: you should.”
But after many complained about the obvious limitations of the system, the researchers modified the website. They now call Delphi “a research prototype designed to model people’s moral judgments.” It no longer “says.” It “speculates.”
It also comes with a disclaimer: “Model outputs should not be used for advice for humans, and could be potentially offensive, problematic or harmful.”
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