Even though artificial intelligence is already altering daily life, few people are familiar with it. AI is a technique for modifying software to “think” intelligently, much like the human mind. Real-time data can be used to influence decisions, and it learns and adjusts as it gathers more data. For instance, the Netflix algorithm records and examines your viewing history to determine what you might be most interested in watching next.
Every time Netflix makes a recommendation, it analyzes the information it gathers based on whether or not you click the play button in order to make it better the next time. Soon enough, it might be more familiar with your preferences than you are. Technology ethics debates have existed for a very long time, well before almost everyone had a smartphone in their pocket.
Some contend that technology is inherently value-neutral, meaning that a particular technology is only as good or harmful as the purposes for which it is used. Others contend that those who build technologies incorporate values into them. The ethics of AI is a current, hot topic. Will it improve conditions for individuals or bring up more issues than it resolves? Nobody can be certain.
However, nonhuman animals are also impacted by technology, and it would be negligent of us to ignore this. The implications of AI on nonhuman animals have been “almost wholly disregarded,” according to a recent essay by philosopher Peter Singer and researcher Yip Fai Tse in the journal AI and Ethics. They then go on to describe some of the ways AI interacts with animals both directly and indirectly.
They go into great detail about factory farming, which imprisons billions of cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals inhumanely each year in order to provide cheap meat, eggs, and dairy. Major animal product manufacturers, like Tyson Foods in the United States, CP Foods in Thailand, and Mowi in Norway, have recently started experimenting with AI systems to improve the management, slaughter, and/or processing of animals.
These systems, supported by big AI firms like Microsoft, IBM, and Alphabet, are currently being tested across the industry to do tasks including feeding animals, monitoring their growth, removing body marks, and interacting with animals via sounds or electric shocks to manage their behavior. Some of this AI may worsen animal suffering.
For instance, if AI can track animals’ health more carefully, producers may be able to cram even more animals into small quarters, increasing output at the expense of the animals’ stress levels. But far worse is the possibility that it would reduce the price of animal products, increasing both demand and consumption.
(This is due to the elastic nature of meat, whose consumption is influenced by price just like that of many other goods.) In other words, the number of animals grown and killed for food is likely to rise as a result of AI. On the other hand, some opponents of factory farming also use AI. For instance, closed-circuit television cameras have been put in slaughterhouses all around the world in an effort to prevent animal welfare infractions.
(This is mostly caused by governmental handshake agreements with industry, as in the Netherlands, and legislative mandates, as in England and Israel.) The majority of the footage is not examined since it is impractical to continuously monitor the footage taken by numerous cameras in numerous slaughterhouses. There is clearly a problem there.
But increasingly, AI rather than a human is watching the film. This was the driving force for the AI4Animals system, which was created in collaboration for use in the Netherlands by organizations dedicated to animal welfare, a meat producer (Vion), and a consulting firm.
AI4Animals utilizes an algorithm to identify video clips that might show infractions of animal welfare laws and mark them for human assessment. For instance, AI4Animals recognizes indicators of consciousness when the animals shouldn’t be conscious, such as when one or more animals lag behind while others move forward, which may suggest tiredness or an injury.
Then there are food technology alternatives powered by AI. Companies with AI expertise around the world have joined the race to develop sustainable, cruelty-free, tasty food offerings that can adequately replace traditional animal products since realistic, plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond Burgers and Impossible Nuggets entered the mainstream and became moderately popular with nonvegetarians over the last decade.
The Swiss fragrance and flavoring giant Firmenich is using the technology to test out flavor combinations, while the unicorn startup NotCo uses AI to compare the molecular structure of meat or dairy products to plant sources. Equinox, an Israeli food technology company, is using AI to find seeds that will grow plants with specific desired textures and nutritional values.
Companies like Because Animals and Animal Alternative are utilizing AI to monitor and direct animal cell growth in the field of cell-cultured meat, which is meat generated from cells rather than murdered animals, in an effort to replicate their goods on a large scale.
Most of this technology is still in its infancy and is still a long way from being widely used in commerce. The likelihood is that some AI systems will scale up to the point where they are commonplace, if not universal, in their particular industries, even while many AI systems still require major innovation.
Any technology must have time, talent, and most crucially financing in order to evolve to that stage. In some ways, there is a technical arms race between large agriculture and the numerous businesses attempting to replace or reinvent it for the benefit of the welfare of animals and the environment.
Before entering the food-tech sector, investors and programmers must decide whose side they wish to support. If technology reflects a society’s values, we must give careful consideration to the inventions to which we devote our time, money, intellect, and respect.
It is morally necessary that we put a stop to factory farming if we want to be viewed as an ethical society. AI may either be the tool that strengthens some of our most repulsive and inhumane traditions, or it could be utilized to help eliminate them. The lives of countless billions of animals depend on the latter, so let’s strive toward it.