The philosopher Adam Smith, considered the father of modern economics, in The Wealth of Nations (1776) systematically treated economics as a subfield of ethics. Obviously, the economy is closely linked to ideas of justice and equity, to political ideas, and therefore ethics, of progress or growth. Those ideas determine the principles under which the creation of wealth and resources are permissible. And these principles determine that not everything goes as long as wealth is produced, regardless of the type of economy that governs a country.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is being hailed as the future of economics and science. Considered one of the technological fields with great potential for innovation, AI is a discipline that can be combined with many scientific fields (biology, medicine, social sciences, linguistics, or climate change). Numerous applications have emerged from these disciplinary intersections in use both in public administration and in the industrial field: automation systems with the purpose of streamlining the administration in justice, behavior prediction both in police work and in human resources, or to assess the solvency of a person or their driving behavior. All examples in which there is a risk of undermining democratic principles or fundamental rights.
The indiscriminate use of AI to solve any problem has turned this discipline into a space in which old pseudoscientific, racist, sexist and ableist theories, endorsed in their day by policies of the same nature, have reappeared embedded in systems with which oppress poor people, black and racialized people, disabled, immigrants or women. AI cloaks and obscures those theories with a thick layer of mathematical language that makes it difficult to understand the impact of the created systems. Ruha Benjamin, Virginia Eubanks or Safiya Noble have vividly described in their works how these technologies have been used to covertly privilege a few. A new example that not all innovation is ethical.
It is commendable that the Spanish government recognized these risks in its day and to face them created, in the year 2020, an advisory council for AI whose objective was “provide independent advice and recommendations on measures to be taken to ensure safe and ethical use of Artificial Intelligence”, according to the La Moncloa website. And it was very consistent in placing its coordination in the Ministry of Economy. However, after the review of the National AI Strategy (ENIA), the advisory council has not been consulted to analyze “the implications that these disruptive technologies will have in various fields” in most cases, including the agreement between ADIA Lab and Sedia (Secretary of State for Digitization and Artificial Intelligence) to establish its European headquarters in Granada. An agreement that causes great concern, since it contradicts the principles of ethics and security with which the Spanish government committed to developing new technologies.
The ADIA Lab is a scientific center funded by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), the richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates, which began operations in December 2022. Whereas ADIA, the entity that finances ADIA Lab, has assets of around 800,000 million dollars, its investment in Spain may be considerable.
In the UAE, science is not independent of the government, according to document organizations such as Human Rights Watch. The government influences the personnel decisions and agenda of the research centers, including ADIA Lab. Therefore, the Sedia has agreed on an agenda of research focused, among others, on the development of an economic modeling of climate change and its mitigation policies, as well as the development of ethical computing infrastructures with a scientific center financed by a government that does not recognize the independence of science, that tramples on human rights, especially women, the LGTBQI+ communities and immigrants, and whose wealth comes mainly from oil.
In other words, research on the climate transition will be financed by entities whose wealth comes from fossil fuels, and studies on ethical principles will be financed by a government that questions the dignity and rights of certain people. The scientists involved in the ADIA Lab, although recognized in their fields of specialization, are not experts in ethics, ecology or law. Sandy Pentland, for example, co-founded Aadhaar, which markets a controversial people identification system that makes it easy to mass surveillance in India. In summary, the credibility of the results of this collaboration could be comparable to that of reports on the effects of tobacco on health that were once made by tobacco companies.
Sedia’s decision ignores ethical principles in the economy, in science in general and in AI in particular. The agreement with ADIA Lab reduces ethics in AI to simplistic technical considerations and ignores that ethics in AI also extends to the political context and the conditions under which its results are developed and financed.
This alliance will not make Spain a more advanced country in AI nor does it allow us to affirm that “drives the development of ethical AI”, as assured by the Secretary of State, Carme Artigas, to Cadena SER. This alliance only puts the UAE on the map of European competition and questions the credibility with which SEDIA claims to want to promote the ethical development of AI.
For the above reasons, three members of the AI advisory board have already resigned last week. Two of them (Ricardo Baeza-Yates and Lorena Jaume-Palasí) are signatories of this letter.
Ricardo Baeza-Yates He is director of research at Northeastern University’s Institute for Experiential AI and a member of several global and US technology policy committees. He is an ACM and IEEE Fellow, as well as the “Ángela Ruiz Robles” National Award for Applied Informatics. Last Friday she resigned from the Government AI Advisory Council.
Lorena Jaume-Palasí She is an ethicist and founder of several NGOs on technology and ethics. She is a member of the international advisory board of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) of the European Parliament and of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. Last Thursday she resigned from the Government AI Advisory Council.
Ramon Lopez de Mantaras He is one of the pioneers of AI in Europe and the “Julio Rey Pastor” National Research Award in Mathematics and ICT for his contributions to AI.
Carmela Troncoso is an adjunct professor and head of the Security and Privacy Engineering Laboratory (SPRING) at the EPFL School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC), Switzerland. She is the CNIL-INRIA Award for the Protection of Privacy (2017).