Ethical Challenges in Machine Learning: A look at Advertising and Ethics

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There is no doubt that Machine Learning systems are transforming our lives, creating both a positive and negative impact. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft have taken advantage of the boundless opportunities artificial intelligence has to offer. However, businesses and governments are relying more and more on ML systems to make important decisions, raising questions about fairness, ethics and morality.

Despite the “optimism” that surrounds AI, we must be aware of its potential outcomes and the ethical challenges. Increasingly, technologists and policy makers are dealing with these questions, asking themselves how can AI and individuals ethically interact.

Some of the issues we may face include:

  • Unemployment: Labor is concerned primarily with automation. As we continue to implement machine automation, certain jobs (predictable physical work) could disappear. While this might sound like something bad, we must also keep in mind that new jobs will be created due to this disruption. The real question is how are we going to educate people for these new jobs?
  • Inequality: By using artificial intelligence, companies can drastically reduce the reliance on human workforce, which means people will work less hours (therefore make less income, broadening the labor gap).
  • Humanity: Humans are limited, while machines have unlimited resources. How will machine learning affect the way we behave and interact with others? Will we soon be interacting with machines as if they were humans? Will machines adapt to cultural norms?
  • Algorithmic Bias: Blind spots or biases in the algorithms could lead to discrimination against certain types of people (As seen in AI systems that can tell if you are homosexual).

So what precautions are being taken to stay on top of these issues? Recently DeepMind created a special research unit devoted to investigating ethical issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence. The people at DeepMind believe that these systems should remain under human control and be used for socially beneficial purposes. Elon Musk launched the “OpenAI” Institute, which is a non-profit research organization that “aims to promote and develop friendly AI” in such ways that will benefit humanity as a whole.

Also, a partnership on Artificial Intelligence has been formed by Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Google, and Microsoft (Apple joined at the beginning of this year). As best described in their web page, this partnership was established to advance the public’s understanding of AI, as well as formulate the best ways to implement this technology.

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Ethical Impact on Advertising

Artificial intelligence isn’t inherently good or bad, it is in the way we use it that determines its nature. Machine learning algorithms come into use across multiple fields, such as advertising. AI systems have the ability to collect and analyze data to determine human behavior. Every time you click on a link, google search something, every like you make on Instagram or Facebook, your location data from your cell phone, even your credit card transactions can give huge insights into a persons habits.

The advertising industry is obsessed with understanding human behavior, therefor taking advantage of these machine learning systems. However, as discussed in this article, AI raises many questions in terms of ethics. Imagine advertisers knowing us better than we know ourselves? The more they can understand us as individuals, the easier it will be to persuade us.


The article above mentions the ethical implications of adding consumers into commercial advertising. In other words, through facial recognition and other technologies, behavioral marketers will be able to access your Facebook pictures, create a 3d image of you and insert it into ads. This obviously raises various questions on privacy, consent and data security. Imagine walking by a billboard with an imagine of a person on the beach. Now imagine that the person on the billboard consequently takes your physical characteristics. Creepy? Yes!! However, as with every other new disruptive technology, consumers will eventually learn to adapt to these marketing techniques.



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