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What Buddhism can do for AI ethics

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The explosive growth of artificial intelligence has fostered hope that it will help us solve many of the world’s most intractable problems. However, there’s also much concern about the power of AI, and growing agreement that its use should be guided to avoid infringing upon our rights.

Many groups have discussed and proposed ethical guidelines for how AI should be developed or deployed: IEEE, a global professional organization for engineers, has issued a 280-page document on the subject (to which I contributed), and the European Union has published its own framework. The AI Ethics Guidelines Global Inventory has compiled more than 160 such guidelines from around the world.

Unfortunately, most of these guidelines are developed by groups or organizations concentrated in North America and Europe: a survey published by social scientist Anna Jobin and her colleagues found 21 in the US, 19 in the EU, 13 in the UK, four in Japan, and one each from the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, and South Korea.

Guidelines reflect the values of the people who issue them. That most AI ethics guidelines are being written in Western countries means that the field is dominated by Western values such as respect for autonomy and the rights of individuals, especially since the few guidelines issued in other countries mostly reflect those in the West.

Guidelines written in different countries may be similar because some values are indeed universal. However, for these guidelines to truly reflect the perspectives of people in non-Western countries, they would need to represent the traditional value systems found in each culture as well.

People both in the East and the West need to share their ideas and consider those from others to enrich their own perspectives. Because the development and use of AI spans the entire globe, the way we think about it should be informed by all the major intellectual traditions.

With that in mind, I believe that insights derived from Buddhist teaching could benefit anyone working on AI ethics anywhere in the world, and not only in traditionally Buddhist cultures (which are mostly in the East and primarily in Southeast Asia).

Buddhism proposes a way of thinking about ethics based on the assumption that all sentient beings want to avoid pain. Thus, the Buddha teaches that an action is good if it leads to freedom from suffering.

The implication of this teaching for artificial intelligence is that any ethical use of AI must strive to decrease pain and suffering. In other words, for example, facial recognition technology should be used only if it can be shown to reduce suffering or promote well-being. Moreover, the goal should be to reduce suffering for everyone—not just those who directly interact with AI.

We can of course interpret this goal broadly to include fixing a system or process that’s unsatisfactory, or changing any situation for the better. Using technology to discriminate against people, or to surveil and repress them, would clearly be unethical. When there are gray areas or the nature of the impact is unclear, the burden of proof would be with those seeking to show that a particular application of AI does not cause harm.

Do no harm

A Buddhist-inspired AI ethics would also understand that living by these principles requires self-cultivation. This means that those who are involved with AI should continuously train themselves to get closer to the goal of totally eliminating suffering. Attaining the goal is not so important; what is important is that they undertake the practice to attain it. It’s the practice that counts.

Designers and programmers should practice by recognizing this goal and laying out specific steps their work would take in order for their product to embody the ideal. That is, the AI they produce must be aimed at helping the public to eliminate suffering and promote well-being.  

For any of this to be possible, companies and government agencies that develop or use AI must be accountable to the public. Accountability is also a Buddhist teaching, and in the context of AI ethics it requires effective legal and political mechanisms as well as judicial independence. These components are essential in order for any AI ethics guideline to work as intended.

Another key concept in Buddhism is compassion, or the desire and commitment to eliminate suffering in others. Compassion, too, requires self-cultivation, and it means that harmful acts such as wielding one’s power to repress others have no place in Buddhist ethics. One does not have to be a monk to practice Buddhist ethics, but one must practice self-cultivation and compassion in daily life.

We can see that values promoted by Buddhism—including accountability, justice, and compassion—are mostly the same as those found in other ethical traditions. This is to be expected; we are all human beings, after all. The difference is that Buddhism argues for these values in a different way and places perhaps a greater emphasis on self-cultivation.

Buddhism has much to offer anyone thinking about the ethical use of technology, including those interested in AI. I believe the same is also true of many other non-Western value systems. AI ethics guidelines should draw on the rich diversity of thought from the world’s many cultures to reflect a wider variety of traditions and ideas about how to approach ethical problems. The technology’s future will only be brighter for it.

Soraj Hongladarom is a professor of philosophy at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Smart lock maker Latch teams with real estate firm to go public via SPAC

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This week, Latch becomes the latest company to join the SPAC parade. Founded in 2014, the New York-based company came out of stealth two years later, launching a smart lock system. Though, like many companies primarily known for hardware solutions, Latch says it’s more, offering a connected security software platform for owners of apartment buildings.

The company is set to go public courtesy of a merger with blank check company TS Innovation Acquisitions Corp. As far as partners go, Tishman Speyer Properties makes strategic sense here. The New York-based commercial real estate firm is a logical partner for a company whose technology is currently deployed exclusively in residential apartment buildings.

“With a standard IPO, you have all of the banks take you out to all of the big investors,” Latch founder and CEO Luke Schoenfelder tells TechCrunch. “We felt like there was an opportunity here to have an extra level of strategic partnership and an extra level of product expansion that came as part of the process. Our ability to go into Europe and commercial offices is now accelerated meaningfully because of this partnership.

The number of SPAC deals has increased substantially over the past several months, including recent examples like Taboola. According to Crunchbase, Latch has raised $152 million, to date. And the company has seen solid growth over the past year — not something every hardware or hardware adjacent company can say about the pandemic.

As my colleague Alex noted on Extra Crunch today, “Doing some quick match, Latch grew booked revenues 50.5% from 2019 to 2020. Its booked software revenues grew 37.1%, while its booked hardware top line expanded over 70% during the same period.”

“We’ve been a customer and investor in Latch for years,” Tishman Speyer President and CEO Rob Speyer tells TechCrunch. “Our customers — the people who live in our buildings — love the Latch product. So we’ve rolled it out across our residential portfolio […] I hope we can act as both a thought partner and product incubator for them.”

While the company plans to expand to commercial offices, apartment buildings have been a nice vertical thus far — meaning the company doesn’t have to compete as directly in the crowded smart home lock category. Among other things, it’s probably a net positive if you’re going head to head against, say Amazon. That the company has built in partners in real estate firms like Tishman Speyer is also a net positive.

Schoenfelder says the company is looking toward such partnerships as test beds for its technology. “Our products have been in the field for many years in multifamily. The usage patterns are going to be slightly different in commercial offices. We think we know how they’re going to be different, but being able to get them up and running and observe the interaction with products in the wild is going to be really important.”

The deal values Latch at $1.56 billion and is expected to close in Q2.

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AT&T may keep majority ownership of DirecTV as it closes in on final deal

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A DirecTV satellite dish mounted to the outside of a building.

Enlarge / A DirecTV satellite dish seen outside a bar in Portland, Oregon, in October 2019. (credit: Getty Images | hapabapa)

AT&T is reportedly closing in on a deal to sell a stake in DirecTV to TPG, a private-equity firm.

Unfortunately for customers hoping that AT&T will relinquish control of DirecTV, a Reuters report on Friday said the pending deal would give TPG a “minority stake” in AT&T’s satellite-TV subsidiary. On the other hand, a private-equity firm looking to wring value out of a declining business wouldn’t necessarily be better for DirecTV customers than AT&T is.

It’s also possible that AT&T could cede operational control of DirecTV even if it remains the majority owner. CNBC in November reported on one proposed deal in which “AT&T would retain majority economic ownership of the [DirecTV and U-verse TV] businesses, and would maintain ownership of U-verse infrastructure, including plants and fiber,” while the buyer of a DirecTV stake “would control the pay-TV distribution operations and consolidate the business on its books.”

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Fintechs could see $100 billion of liquidity in 2021

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Three years ago, we released the first edition of the Matrix Fintech Index. We believed then, as we do now, that fintech represents one of the most exciting major innovation cycles of this decade. In 2020, all the long-term trends forcing change in this sector continued and even accelerated.

The broad movement away from credit toward debit, particularly among younger consumers, represents one such macro shift. However, the pandemic also created new, unforeseen drivers. Among them, millennials decamped from their rentals in crowded cities to accelerate their first home purchase, to the benefit of proptech companies and challenger mortgage players alike.

E-commerce saw an enormous acceleration in growth rates, furthering adoption of online payments platforms. Lastly, low interest rates and looming inflation helped pave the way for the price of Bitcoin to charge toward $30,000. In short, multiple tailwinds combined to produce a blockbuster year for the category.

In this year’s refresh of the Matrix Fintech Index, we’ll divide our attention into three parts. First, a look at the public stocks’ performance. Second, liquidity. Third, we highlight one major trend in the sector: Buy Now Pay Later, or BNPL.

Public fintech stocks rose 97% in 2020

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index. While the underlying performance of these companies was strong, the pandemic further bolstered results as consumers avoided appearing in-person for both shopping and banking. Instead, they sought — and found — digital alternatives.

For the fourth straight year, the publicly traded fintechs massively outperformed the incumbent financial services providers as well as every mainstream stock index.

Our own representation of the public fintechs’ performance is the Matrix Fintech Index — a market cap-weighted index that tracks the progress of a portfolio of 25 leading public fintech companies. The Matrix fintech Index rose 97% in 2020, compared to a 14% rise in the S&P 500 and a 10% drop for the incumbent financial service companies over the same time period.

 

2020 performance of individual fintech companies vs. SPX

2020 performance of individual fintech companies versus S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

 

Fintech incumbents and new entrants vs. the S&P 500

Fintech incumbents and new entrants versus the S&P 500. Image Credits: PitchBook

E-commerce undoubtedly stood out as a major driver. As a category, retail e-commerce grew 35% YoY as of Q3, propelling PayPal and Shopify to add over $160 billion of market capitalization over the year. For its part, PayPal in the third quarter signed up 15 million net new active accounts (its highest ever).

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