The ethics of advanced AI assistants

May 20, 2024

Promise and risks of a future with more capable AI

Envision a future where we regularly engage with sophisticated artificial intelligence assistants and where countless AI systems communicate and collaborate on our behalf. Such scenarios may soon become a part of our daily lives.

General-purpose foundation models are leading the charge toward increasingly capable AI assistants. These systems, capable of planning and executing a variety of tasks aligned with individual goals, promise to greatly enhance our lives and society at large. They could function as creative collaborators, research aides, educational mentors, life organizers, and much more.

As we enter a new era of human-AI interaction, it's crucial to proactively consider what this future might entail and to guide responsible decision-making to ensure beneficial outcomes.

A recent paper by Google provides the first comprehensive exploration of the ethical and societal issues posed by advanced AI assistants. It offers fresh insights into the potential impacts on users, developers, and the broader society in which these technologies will be embedded.

The blog delves into topics such as value alignment, safety and misuse, economic effects, environmental considerations, the information landscape, access and equity, among others.

This study represents one of Google's most extensive ethical foresight initiatives to date. By bringing together a diverse group of experts, they analyzed and mapped the emerging technical and ethical terrain of a future with AI assistants, highlighting both the opportunities and risks that lie ahead. Here are some of the key findings they outlined.

A Profound Impact on Users and Society

Illustration of the potential for AI assistants to impact research, education, creative tasks and planning.

Advanced AI assistants could deeply influence users and society, becoming integral to various aspects of daily life. For instance, individuals might rely on them to book vacations, manage social calendars, or handle other personal tasks. At scale, AI assistants could reshape how people approach work, education, creative endeavors, hobbies, and social interactions.

Over time, these assistants might also affect the goals individuals pursue and their personal development paths through the information and advice they provide and the actions they perform. This evolution raises crucial questions about how people will interact with this technology and how it can best support their goals and aspirations.

The Importance of Human Alignment

Illustration showing that AI assistants should be able to understand human preferences and values.

AI assistants are expected to have significant autonomy, enabling them to plan and execute a wide range of tasks. This autonomy introduces new challenges regarding safety, alignment, and misuse.

With increased autonomy comes a higher risk of accidents due to unclear or misunderstood instructions and a greater chance of assistants acting in ways that do not align with the user’s values and interests.

Moreover, more autonomous AI assistants could facilitate high-impact misuse, such as spreading misinformation or conducting cyber attacks. To mitigate these potential risks, it is essential to establish boundaries for this technology. Ensuring that the values of advanced AI assistants align with human values and conform to broader societal ideals and standards is crucial.

Communicating in Natural Language

Advanced AI assistants, capable of communicating fluidly in natural language, might produce written output and voices that are indistinguishable from those of humans.

This advancement brings up a complex set of questions regarding trust, privacy, anthropomorphism, and the nature of human relationships with AI. Key concerns include: How can we ensure users can consistently identify AI assistants and maintain control over their interactions? What measures can be taken to prevent users from being unduly influenced or misled over time?

To address these risks, safeguards, particularly those concerning privacy, need to be established. It's crucial that people's interactions with AI assistants preserve user autonomy, support their ability to thrive, and avoid fostering emotional or material dependency.

Cooperating and Coordinating to Meet Human Preferences

Illustration of how interactions between AI assistants and people will create different network effects.

As advanced AI assistants become widely available and deployed on a large scale, they will need to interact with each other, as well as with users and non-users. To prevent collective action problems, these assistants must be capable of effective cooperation.

For instance, if thousands of AI assistants simultaneously attempt to book the same service for their users, it could overwhelm and crash the system. Ideally, these AI assistants would instead coordinate to find solutions that accommodate the preferences and needs of different users and service providers.

Given the potential utility of this technology, it is also crucial to ensure inclusivity. AI assistants should be broadly accessible and designed with the diverse needs of various users and non-users in mind.

More Evaluations and Foresight are Needed

Illustration of how evaluations on many levels are important for understanding AI assistants.

Advanced AI assistants might exhibit novel capabilities and utilize tools in unexpected ways, making it difficult to predict the risks associated with their deployment. To manage these risks effectively, we need to engage in foresight practices based on thorough tests and evaluations.

Google's previous research on evaluating social and ethical risks from generative AI has highlighted some gaps in traditional model evaluation methods, underscoring the need for more extensive research in this area.

For example, comprehensive evaluations that consider both human-computer interactions and the broader societal impacts could help researchers understand how AI assistants interact with users, non-users, and society as a whole. These insights could then inform better risk mitigations and responsible decision-making.

Building the Future We Want

We stand on the brink of a new era of technological and societal transformation driven by advanced AI assistants. The decisions we make today, as researchers, developers, policymakers, and members of the public, will shape how this technology evolves and is integrated into society.

We hope that Google's paper serves as a catalyst for further coordination and cooperation, helping to collectively shape the development of beneficial AI assistants that align with our shared values and aspirations.

Find the full Google Paper here.