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We need an AI constitution that protects our civil rights

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The writer is co-founder and chief scientist of Dionysus Health

Today you were passed over for a job. You were declined a loan. You, or perhaps your child, were rejected from a top university. And you never even knew it happened. Every day, across some of the deepest, most constitutionally-protected parts of our lives, algorithms are making decisions that no human could ever justify face to face.

Under pressure, companies are debating ethical frameworks and establishing advisory councils. We don’t need an artificial intelligence manifesto — we need a constitution. As it is being used today, AI is simply incompatible with civil rights.

As chief scientist of one of the first companies to use AI in hiring, I built the system that passed you over for that job. The massive employers that were our customers didn’t need to wait for your job application; we in effect applied for you, whether you knew it or not. But when AI decides who gets hired you’ll never know why it wasn’t you. A human being asking you about age, your politics or family planning during the hiring process would be an actionable violation of your civil rights. AI doing the same without your knowledge is just as wrong, but completely hidden from view.

Beyond hiring, some employers are toying with systems toautomatically fire low-productivity workers. But why fire people if you can “help” them choose to leave? Other companies are developing machine learning-based personality assessments that screen out applicants predicted to agitate for increased wages, support unionisation or demonstrate job hopping tendencies.

Loans drive economic mobility in America, even as they’ve been a historically powerful tool for discrimination. I’ve worked on multiple projects to reduce that bias using AI. What I learnt, however, is that even if an algorithm works exactly as intended, it is still solely designed to optimise the financial returns to the lender who paid for it. The loan application process is already impenetrable to most, and now your hopes for home ownership or small business funding are dying in a 50-millisecond computation.

AI-driven breakthroughs are occurring in health and biotech every week. In health it is meant to be unbiased, but if you are an outlier then that amazing new diagnostic tool may not diagnose you accurately. How would you know if some unknown company’s proprietary algorithm was trained on patients like you? And if all the doctors in your region are using the same tool, you have nowhere to go for a second opinion. When an AI-powered doctor tells you that you’re just being hysterical, the AI-powered insurance company is unlikely to disagree.

In law, the right to a lawyer and judicial review are a constitutional guarantee in the US and an established civil right throughout much of the world. These are the foundations of your civil liberties. When algorithms act as an expert witness, testifying against you but immune to cross examination, these rights are not simply eroded — they cease to exist.

People aren’t perfect. Neither ethics training for AI engineers nor legislation by woefully uninformed politicians can change that simple truth. I don’t need to assume that Big Tech chief executives are bad actors or that large companies are malevolent to understand that what is in their self-interest is not always in mine. The framers of the US Constitution recognised this simple truth and sought to leverage human nature for a greater good. The Constitution didn’t simply assume people would always act towards that greater good. Instead it defined a dynamic mechanism — self-interest and the balance of power — that would force compromise and good governance. Its vision of treating people as real actors rather than better angels produced one of the greatest frameworks for governance in history.

Imagine you were offered an AI-powered test for post-partum depression. My company developed that very test and it has the power to change your life, but you may choose not to use it for fear that we might sell the results to data brokers or activist politicians. You have a right to our AI acting solely for your health. It was for this reason I founded an independent non-profit, The Human Trust, that holds all of the data and runs all of the algorithms with sole fiduciary responsibility to you. No mother should have to choose between a life-saving medical test and her civil rights.

AI can do wonderful things. But civil rights can’t exist in a world of hidden calculations. Just as with a lawyer or doctor, we must have AI that acts in our self-interest. AI needs a constitution — or more accurately, we need a constitution that defines access to artificial intelligence acting solely on our behalf as a civil right.

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