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Blackface, #MeToo, Alan Turing and super-ethical AI

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Ethical behaviour is culturally contextual and constantly evolving. Our not too distant past is filled with discriminatory behaviours and injustices that (I hope!) most of us would find abhorrent.

Canadians are grappling with the image of Justin Trudeau in brown and blackface on multiple occasions. It’s shocked many of us and raised questions about Trudeau’s judgement and ethical conduct. While some chalk this up to a different time with different standards (the most recent incident happened in 2001), others feel he really should have known better. In the Netherlands, the controversy over the tradition of Zwarte Piet, “Santa’s blackface holiday assistant” continues to be a divisive issue. My own ethical judgement and cultural biases feel it’s a pretty clear case of deeply offensive, racist behaviour.

A female colleague of mine was recently recognized for an article published in the journal Voice and Speech Review where she speaks out about her experiences working in the Canadian theatre community. There are stories about bullying and sexual harassment, losing work if one dared to question male directors or instructors and the survival mechanisms put in place to try and get by in this culture (Spencer). Her tales are familiar to so many of us who have similar stories and finally feel that we can share these in the aftermath of #MeToo.

Relating this back to artificial intelligence and ethics…the dangers of encoding our own flawed and biased historical and even current practices into an AI system are all too real. This is already the case and has been documented with systems that discriminate based on race or gender. I’m wondering though, if maybe, there is the possibility of creating an AI that is super-ethical, much in the same way we’ve speculated about super-intelligent AI. Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom and MIRI researcher Eliezer Yudkowksy touch on this in their paper The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. They say the way forward to some super ethical future isn’t to program in our ethics as we understand them today, but rather, the super-ethical AI will need the capacity to evolve itself just as our own sense of ethics has evolved (Bostrom and Yudkowsky).

We see this evolution of our own Western ethics so very clearly in the story of the person who first ignited the spark for artificial intelligence – Alan Turing. In 1948, Turing wrote a seminal paper where he outlined an aspirational benchmark for the new field of artificial intelligence, now known as the Turing Test. But, as a gay man living in mid-twentieth century Britain, Turing’s personal story is one of discrimination and persecution. In 1952 he was treated as a criminal, stripped of the security clearances necessary for his work, convicted of committing acts of gross indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. He ultimately committed suicide two years later. It’s a tragic, heart breaking story. It wasn’t until 2009 that Britain publicly acknowledged its shameful treatment of Turing with a formal apology.

If we see technology as a way to make things better, can it augment our humanity in ways that make us behave more ethically towards each other? Could that also extend to other realms, such as how we are treating the planet? Perhaps we will one day have a super-ethical AI. In the meantime, there are real people facing discrimination today that deserve better.

By Katrina Ingram _______

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Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at © 2019 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.


Hodges, A. (n.d.). Alan Turing — a short biography. Retrieved from

Angwin, J., Larson, J., Kirchner, L., & Mattu, S. (2019, March 9). Machine Bias. Retrieved from

Armstrong, J. (2019, October 1). EXCLUSIVE: Video shows Trudeau in blackface in 3rd instance of racist makeup. Retrieved from

Bostrom, N., & Yudkowsky, E. (2014). The ethics of artificial intelligence. The Cambridge handbook of artificial intelligence, 316, 334.

Davies, C. (2009, September 11). PM's apology to codebreaker Alan Turing: we were inhumane. Retrieved from

Hasselt, J. van, & Dejong, P. (2018, December 6). This notorious Christmas character is dividing a country. Retrieved from

Spencer, J. (n.d.). Performing Arts Training in the Age of #MeToo. Retrieved from

Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59(236), 433.


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