Homo Ciberneticus

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    The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked off a great opportunity for humankind to maintain open its communication channels via the cyber world.  This has worked well for those who have the resources and can afford and master the technology. However, the coronavirus has unmasked the digital divide like never before.

    Pope Francis during a recent audience expressed his concern that “the pandemic has exposed and aggravated social problems, above all that of inequality. Some people can work from home, while this is impossible for many others. Certain children, notwithstanding the difficulties involved, can continue to receive an academic education, while this has been abruptly interrupted for many, many others”.

    Many contemporary economists view the digital revolution as a mega game-changer. It has and will continue to transform the way we live, relate to each other and work.

    The digital revolution knows its foundations in a paper written by the British genius Alan Turing, in 1936. Turing envisioned a device that could read an endless tape of 0s and 1s to calculate anything that could be calculated. After many work and developments of other geniuses this concept eventually developed into what we now refer to as ‘computers’. The mobile phone developed by Bell Labs in 1973 further aided the dissemination of digital technology.

    These machines will not become human beings, but there is little doubt that these devices will not reach a form of intelligence where they can learn and carry out complex tasks, once regarded unique to intelligent human beings.  Machines equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) have now reached a level of sophistication where they translate texts, drive cars, identify persons and play games that require elaborate skills. Hundreds of years of expert studies and developments could be surpassed by machines that have been trained to use elaborate algorithms. However, this has laid several traps.

    Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan theologian and leading spokesman on what is termed as ‘Algor-ethics’ argues that we should always be reminded that “while man has always lived in a “techno-human condition” where human beings and machines work together, it is more important than ever for AI proponents to put humans – not machines – first”.

    We are living in a world where unbeknown to us, many decisions are being taken by machines based on algorithms.  Millions of data are being captured and elaborated, sometimes through doubtful means, by powerful computers.

    As long as these powerful tools are used to aid decision-making and there is human intervention then, all is good.  However, often, decisions are taken blindly by what is produced by these machines. The great risk is that uncontrolled AI may increase inequality.

    In the UK, a recent attempt by the government to grade thousands of students by algorithm was a disaster.  Protests ensued, and the government had to concede that process was faulty and revised its decision.

    In the absence of MATSEC results, a grading system was developed to classify students on their eligibility for entry into Maltese church-run schools. Despite scoring high marks in their mock exams, a number of students, pertaining to certain clusters, were classified as ineligible. One hopes that the exercise carried out locally was not subject to a similar systematic bias to that of the UK system.

    AI systems are often limited to make predictions that mirror past patterns. There is a wealth of evidence showing that the use of these systems can often replicate injustices caused in the past rather than improve on them, no matter how ‘objective’ these systems may be. In dealing with these matters one needs to pose the question whether digitising a service of a decision will make life better for individuals.

    Claudio Farrugia is a member of Catholic Voices who studied the social teachings of the Church.