AI raises alarm at world's biggest wealth fund's ethics watchdog

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(Bloomberg) -- The rise of artificial intelligence is raising questions at the ethics watchdog for the world’s biggest wealth fund.

In particular, the threat posed by weapons systems guided by AI brings ethical “challenges,” according to Johan H. Andresen, the chairman of the Norwegian Council on Ethics.

“It won’t necessarily only have to do with weapons, but many other applications,” he said in an interview in Oslo. “It’s hard to program empathy -- we can’t demand that -- but everything we’re looking at is under human control and humans are making the decisions, so both people and companies can be held responsible.”

Norway’s $1 trillion wealth fund has been stepping up its scrutiny of its portfolio and has banned a swathe of companies, including nuclear weapons and cluster bomb producers as well as tobacco and coal companies. The decision to exclude a company can either be made directly at the fund or after a recommendation from the ethics council.

In terms of scrutinizing companies involved in AI, the council may single out some initial cases for observation to send a signal that it’s an area where it sees ethical risk, said Andresen, a billionaire who also controls investment firm Ferd AS.

Pushing Back

The council last year focused on human rights, labor conditions and the breaking up of ships on beaches. It listed 11 companies to be excluded, but only one company was dumped and four were put under observation, according to an annual report released Thursday. The fund then decided to exclude further nine companies in 2018 based on the recommendations, bringing the total to 73.

Andresen said engaging with larger companies is becoming harder and harder.

“The larger companies have more resources and they use them,” Andresen said. “Some have a constructive dialog but others try to hide and even engage lawyers. It makes it more demanding and makes it longer for us to arrive at a decision.”

The group is now considering taking action on the issue of labor conditions for migrant workers ahead of the soccer world cup in Qatar in 2022, with recruitment practices also in breach of the human rights guidelines.

“People who are already in a vulnerable situation are put in a forced situation, which some have defined as a modern day slavery,” Andresen said. The council began looking at the recruitment practices in 2016, and may present a list of companies to be excluded this year. Nine companies have so far been investigated and it will continue the work in 2018, it said in the annual report.

Those proposals will come in addition to “a handful” of companies submitted to the fund for exclusion based on a climate ruling introduced by the Norwegian parliament in 2016 to cut the worst emitters of greenhouse gases.

Norway’s $1 Trillion Fund About to Get List of Climate Baddies

“It may seem from the outside that this takes some time, but when you first start publishing recommendations, they carry weight,” Andresen said. The worst emitters are energy, steel and cement producers, and is also considering including shipping companies under the same criterion, he said.

Going forward, the council will ramp up its investigations on the effects of deforestation and infrastructure development on the environment or violates human and indigenous rights, he said.

“The oil fund is now taking a more active ownership approach -- they’re committed to doing this and they have the resources,” Andresen said.

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