All researchers, including AI, and all workers more broadly, need to accept responsibility for their actions. Seeing yourself as a cog in a machine does not remove your moral obligations.
Geoffrey Hinton has been called the “Godfather of AI.” He pioneered neural networks, the basis of Large Language Models like ChatGPT. Hinton recently left Google so he could speak out about the risks of AI; no doubt as an employee of a company promoting AI he would have been limited in what he could say.
Dr. Frankenstein felt guilty for the suffering his monster caused. Hinton avoids any moral qualms about his work, commenting to the New York Times, “I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.”
At the Nuremberg trials many Nazi officers argued that they were just following orders and so should be absolved from blame. The basis of the argument is that someone else was to blame, and the accused were merely the instrument. After all, the orders from above would eventually be carried out by someone, so a soldier disobeying an immoral order won’t change the outcome and shouldn’t be held responsible.
(This excuse was also recently adopted by Georgia GOP chairman David Shafer, although substitute commanding officer for lawyer. Not his lawyer mind you, which may have had some argument for him taking reasonable. In this case it was the lawyer of someone who was trying to subvert democracy, who was a biased party who would gain from the actions they directed him to do.)
The argument of just following orders was soundly rejected at Nuremberg seventy years ago. It will hopefully be rejected in Georgia in the coming months.
Hinton stands in their shadow when he says it was inevitable. The parallel underlying argument is that the result is a foregone conclusion, and he was merely the instrument. If not him, then someone else.
The same could be said of a lynch mob. 99 other people in the mob are going to lynch someone, so why cause waves in the community by not going along with it. Heck, if you don’t provide the rope, someone else will, or maybe they’ll take your rope by force.
Polish poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec famously wrote, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” It’s easy to argue that you won’t make a difference, that you bear no responsibility for the outcome when greater forces are at play. No doubt millions of people felt this way when it came to racism, genocide, sexism, and other social ills. The best changes to society come not from scientists like Mengele or Hinton, but from people like Frank Serpico and Harvey Milk who know that one snowflake can make a difference.
They didn’t act alone. Their voice echoed among thousands of others who also knew that their individual snowflakes can be used in other ways, not just as an avalanche following the crowd. Doing so can be hard. There may be costs to stand up for what is right. There is even pressure when not standing up by simply not doing wrong, for example, saying no to a lucrative job because the company disregards moral issues. (For the record, I walked away from cryptocurrency companies offering significant compensation because I saw the negative impact cryptocurrency has had and will continue to have on society.)
For Hinton to simply say this was inevitable is to abdicate his responsibility in the world. The same is true for other AI researchers, and for David Shafer, and really for everyone. The work you do has an impact. We can’t always know the tertiary effect of the work we do, e.g., a small business knowing that your supplier’s supplier supports a local government that doesn’t fully promote equality; the world is too complex. However, we can, and must, take responsibility for our direct actions. Simply arguing that someone else would have is no excuse.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.