Ethics of AI

The laws of robotics and a Christian perspective.

Two Canadian researchers, Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, were the 2018 winners of the million dollar Association for Computing Machinery A.M. Turing Award (often called the Nobel Prize of computing) along with American Yann LeCun. All three won the prize because of their work on developing the deep neural computer networks that form the basis of much of the success to-date of Artificial Intelligence Systems (AIS). Canada has been a leader in developing this computer technology. It is clear that machine intelligence has started, and will continue, to have an increasing impact on all of our lives.

One of the concerns raised by AI is how we will use it in an ethical manner. In 2018 Bengio, in conjunction with many others, prepared the “Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence.” This document lays down a 10-principle framework for the ethical development of AI. Principles include the Well-Being Principle (the development and use of AIS must permit the growth and well-being of all sentient beings) and the Equity Principle (the development and use of AIS must contribute to the creation of a just and equitable society). 

This declaration is not our first attempt to develop ethical principles to govern machines that exhibit intelligent behaviour. Already in 1942 the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in a short story called “Runabout,” suggested the three laws of Robotics: 

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


While these three laws are important, they clearly do not cover all the ethical problems AIS may cause. In previous columns I have written about self-driving cars and the ethical decisions they may be called to make. Widespread adoption of AIS also raises concern about our privacy. Computer programs have taught themselves to play games like Go and Chess better than the best humans, and who knows what careers they will take over. These developments demonstrate how essential it is to articulate ethical principles to direct and direct this technology toward non-harmful ends and uses. All of us can, I’m sure, imagine how these technologies could be used in war in ways that would give machines the ability to kill humans.

As of late April, 1,374 individuals and 41 organizations have signed this Montreal Declaration. When looking over the list of organizations, I found it unsettling that at this point no Christian denomination, organization or group had put their support behind this document. Either it has not become public enough or AI is not on the church radar. Christians should be in the forefront of arguing for the ethical use of AI. This document (like Asimov’s three laws of Robotics) may not be perfect or complete, but Christians should be actively engaged in discussions on the implications of this rapidly developing technology, how to use it ethically and partnering with others to prevent the abuse of these powerful computer capabilities. Of course, no denomination should endorse such a document without careful study, which may also lead to improvements in these evolving attempts to ethically control the rapidly developing Artificial Intelligence Systems. However, as Christians we need to have these discussions. I particularly look forward to seeing how our Christian higher educational institutions are exploring principles that will permit us to work with this technology in ways that respect others and so give glory to God. 


  • Rudy Eikelboom

    Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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