Advocates for Animals

Making full use of the law to protect animals

Blog: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Animal Rights

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Despite the long struggle to emancipate nonhuman animals from human exploitation, we seem to be a long way from achieving our goal. Moreover, the rapid advancement of emerging new technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and their implementation in the animal agricultural business presents new challenges for our consideration.

Human society is currently preoccupied with the ‘new oil’: data. Data collection, however, and its relationship with machine learning and artificial intelligence is giving rise to a range of human rights issues. This new era of the ‘internet of things’, and the associated machine learning that underpins predictive technologies, is generating important questions about human privacy and discrimination. And although there is little in the way of international regulation, the European Commission (EC) has now published its ‘Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence’ (EC Guide). In this guide, trustworthy artificial intelligence should be lawful, ethical and robust to avoid causing harm. The guide notes that good development and use of AI will consider the potential impact or safety risk to the environment or to animals. But exactly what does this mean for animals? How are they represented and given consideration in the already acknowledged exploitative, modern technological revolution? And how do they feature in ethics guidelines?

The sad truth is that the EC Guide for trustworthy AI, although aiming to protect vulnerable groups and being addressed to ‘all stakeholders’, limits its scope to only protecting humans. Other animals are considered to the extent that ‘good development and use of AI will consider the potential impact or safety risk to the environment or to animals’. What is meant by this phrase and what it means in practice are unaddressed. There are, however, good reasons why we should consider the impact of the human application of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence on nonhuman life. First of all, let’s understand what the terms ‘big data’, machine learning and ‘artificial intelligence’ mean.

Big data refers to capturing and processing a volume of various types of data. Machine learning is a field of ‘artificial intelligence’ in which machines use volumes of data to detect patterns, infer, predict outcomes or make choices and decisions. The choices and decisions machines make can be used by businesses to automate certain business functions, to enhance efficiency and reduce waste. The use of this ‘artificial intelligence’, however, can also result in unfair practices, for example, if a person applies for an online credit account and a machine makes a decision based on disqualifying, but out of date personal data about the applicant.

The development of the use of technology in the animal agriculture sector has its own niche in ‘biosystems engineering’. It promises to lower costs and improve yields through ‘precision livestock farming’ (PLF), The goal being to use networked devices to continuously monitor, and algorithms to manage, all aspects of individual animal lives.

Data-intensive technologies position nonhuman animals in a web of automated processing from before they are even conceived to the end of their lives. Their DNA, and their existence, controlled by data, processed and acted upon by machines. The quality of their lives and their deaths decided from data, collected by a variety of surveillance gadgets, fed into machines for evaluation, prediction and automated decision making. It is not science fiction to think of artificial intelligence determining when it is time for an animal to die, having ‘learned’ the grounds on which to end life, death potentially brought about by automated robotic intervention acting on instructions from machines that function to make life and death decisions in the web of available data.

While the use of these technologies promises to monitor the welfare of farmed animals more closely, this is only in the interests of high yields and maximising profit. The ethics of the use of AI in relation to the dignity of other animals remain inadequately addressed, and concern about the use of new technologies emphasises the potential for cyber-attacks and other dangers, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, equipment breakdown, or insider threats predominantly in relation to the future success of precision livestock farming only.

In this new era, increasingly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution (industry 4.0), people are raising concerns about their human rights. As advocates for animals, it is our duty and our responsibility to be equally concerned about how emerging technologies impact and affect nonhuman life, and work to ensure we promote the interests of other animals caught up in our latest profit-driven technological endeavours. In this regard, the regulatory guide ‘Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence’, published by the European Commission, is wholly inadequate. Its vague and ambiguous reference to the development of AI and the need to prevent harm to animals is unexplored and inappropriately limited by the overarching primacy of human rights.

Dr Jeanette Rowley
International Vegan Rights Alliance

We are grateful to everyone who contributes to the Advocates for Animals blog. Blogs should not be taken as legal advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the firm

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