NASA’s Mars rovers could inspire a more ethical future for AI

Since ChatGPT’s release in late 2022, many news outlets have reported on the ethical threats posed by artificial intelligence. Tech pundits have issued warnings of killer robots bent on human extinction, while the World Economic Forum predicted that machines will take away jobs.

The tech sector is slashing its workforce even as it invests in AI-enhanced productivity tools. Writers and actors in Hollywood are on strike to protect their jobs and their likenesses. And scholars continue to show how these systems heighten existing biases or create meaningless jobs – amid myriad other problems.

There is a better way to bring artificial intelligence into workplaces. I know, because I’ve seen it, as a sociologist who works with NASA’s robotic spacecraft teams.

The scientists and engineers I study are busy exploring the surface of Mars with the help of AI-equipped rovers. But their job is no science fiction fantasy. It’s an example of the power of weaving machine and human intelligence together, in service of a common goal.

An artist's rendition of the Perseverence rover, make of metal with six small wheels, a camera and a robotic arm.

Mars rovers act as an important part of NASA’s team, even while operating millions of miles away from their scientist teammates.
NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP

Instead of replacing humans, these robots partner with us to extend and complement human qualities. Along the way, they avoid common ethical pitfalls and chart a humane path for working with AI.

The replacement myth in AI

Stories of killer robots and job losses illustrate how a “replacement myth” dominates the way people think about AI. In this view, humans can and will be replaced by automated machines.

Amid the existential threat is the promise of business boons like greater efficiency, improved profit margins and more leisure time.

Empirical evidence shows that automation does not cut costs. Instead, it increases inequality by cutting out low-status workers and increasing the salary cost for high-status workers who remain. Meanwhile, today’s productivity tools inspire employees to work more for their employers, not less.

Alternatives to straight-out replacement are “mixed autonomy” systems, where people and robots work together. For example, self-driving cars must be programmed to operate in traffic alongside human drivers. Autonomy is “mixed” because both humans and robots operate in the same system, and their actions influence each other.

A zoomed in shot of a white car with a bumper sticker reading 'self-driving car'

Self-driving cars, while operating without human intervention, still require training from human engineers and data collected by humans.
AP Photo/Tony Avelar

However, mixed autonomy is often seen as a step along the way to replacement. And it can lead to systems where humans merely feed, curate or teach AI tools. This saddles humans with “ghost work” – mindless, piecemeal tasks that programmers hope machine learning will soon render obsolete.

Replacement raises red flags for AI ethics. Work like tagging content to…

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