Carr Center Discussion Paper, Spring 2020-Issue 09

ABSTRACT: What is the measure of personhood and what does it mean for machines to exhibit human-like qualities and abilities? Furthermore, what are the human rights, economic, social, and political implications of using machines that are designed to reproduce human behavior and decision making? The question of personhood is one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy and it is at the core of the questions, and the quest, for an artificial or mechanical personhood.

The development of artificial intelligence has depended on the traditional Western view of personhood as rationality. However, the traditional view of rationality as the essence of personhood, designating how humans, and now machines, should model and approach the world, has always been marked by contradictions, exclusions, and inequality. It has shaped Western economic structures (capitalism’s free markets built on colonialism’s forced markets), political structures (modernity’s individualism imposed through coloniality), and discriminatory social hierarchies (racism and sexism as institutions embedded in enlightenment-era rationalized social and gender exclusions from full person status and economic, political, and social participation), which in turn shape the data, creation, and function of artificial intelligence. It is therefore unsurprising that the artificial intelligence industry reproduces these dehumanizations. Furthermore, the perceived rationality of machines obscures machine learning’s uncritical imitation of discriminatory patterns within its input data, and minimizes the role systematic inequalities play in harmful artificial intelligence outcomes.

The relational Sub-Saharan African philosophy of ubuntu reconciles the ethical limitations of rationality as personhood by linking one’s personhood to the personhood of others. This chapter uses ubuntu to show that the harms caused by artificial intelligence, with a particular focus on automated decision making systems (ADMS), are in essence violations of ubuntu’s relational personhood and relational model of the universe. This critique is furthered by using postcolonial African philosophy to argue that the economic, political, and social inequalities that dominate the processes that shape the creation of artificial intelligence are neocolonial and are assaults on human dignity. The chapter concludes with technical and policy recommendations for addressing the negative effects of artificial intelligence systems.