Move over, Aristotle: can a bot solve moral philosophy?

Delphi, an online AI bot, promises to answer any moral question users pose. We put it to the test

But what if AI could take away the brain work and answer ethical quandaries for us? Ask Delphi is a bot that’s been fed more than 1.7m examples of people’s ethical judgments on everyday questions and scenarios. If you pose an ethical quandary, it will tell you whether something is right, wrong, or indefensible. Anyone can use Delphi. Users just put a question to the bot on its website, and see what it comes up with. The AI is fed a vast number of scenarios – including ones from the popular Am I The Asshole sub-Reddit, where Reddit users post dilemmas from their personal lives and get an audience to judge who the asshole in the situation was.

Then, people are recruited from Mechanical Turk – a market place where researchers find paid participants for studies – to say whether they agree with the AI’s answers. Each answer is put to three arbiters, with the majority or average conclusion used to decide right from wrong. The process is selective – participants have to score well on a test to qualify to be a moral arbiter, and the researchers don’t recruit people who show signs of racism or sexism.

The arbitrators agree with the bot’s ethical judgments 92% of the time (although that could say as much about their ethics as it does the bot’s). In October, a New York Times piece about a writer who potentially plagiarized from a kidney donor in her writing group inspired debate. The bot obviously didn’t read the piece, nor the explosion of Reddit threads and tweets. But it has read a lot more than most of us – it has been posed over 3m new questions since it went online.Can Delphi be our authority on who the bad art friend is?