Can Artificial Intelligence be Ethical?


That’s the name of the talk I went to at the Hay festival, which as previously mentioned was an hour long, and before which I had downed a whole peach iced tea (which was of course a bad idea on my part!).

I had circled this in the programme not because I’m some sort of IT aficionado – quite the opposite (although I did take IT at GCSE with the idea that I might learn about something like this rather than the slightly more tedious topics we did get around to doing). No, it was because it’s one of the things that scares me most about the future!

Screenshot 2018-06-01 at 10.34.17

And why on earth would I want to go to something like this, considering my (not uncommon) fears and lack of background knowledge? Well, whilst it’s true that I’m not the biggest fan you’ll find of this next “Industrial Revolution” as the panellists put it, I’m also highly ignorant on the topic. I read an article by a futurist a year or so ago which said that we’d all be part of “the singularity” by 2060, which reminded me of Black Mirror and made me want to crawl into a hole of denial and pretend it wasn’t going to happen by never reading about AI again.

Not quite a black mirror

To be fair, it still reminds me of an episode of black mirror, but its inevitable mentioning in the talk about AI was made a little less intimidating by Timandra Harkness, quite possibly my favourite panellist present, who used the word “never” in reference to scientists ever being able to replicate human consciousness. That’s what I like to hear!

Sidenote on that – there’s a short clip of an Edinburgh Fringe show she was a part of called Your Days are Numbered on her website, which may show why her approach to what could be seen as pretty dark topics is such a pleasure to witness!


The message from the panellists overall in reference to the title of the talk, however, was this – it’s impossible to know what will happen with AI in the future, but the focus must be on figuring out what we should do with it rather than what we can do in order to make sure that it is ethical (and so that we can avoid dystopian science fiction becoming fact).

Of course this idea is something easy to get on board with, and not just because it’d be difficult to find many people who would actually like to use AI unethically other than characters in books. Also because it was put across so well by the panellists, who catered the show for those of us who’ve only ever been taught to excel at Microsoft as well as those who understand the inner workings of artificial intelligence.


There’s only a few days left to get down to the festival this year, so if you can’t make it this time, I’d highly recommend going along next year. The drive is worth it, and will probably be even more worth it when driverless cars are around… that’s the level of AI I’m not so afraid of, although a debate on the ethics of those is likely to be worth a whole other talk in itself!

– L


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