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Social and Ethical Impact of Machine Learning

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Social and Ethical Impact of Machine Learning

Human beings have come a long way in terms of scientific evolution. Over the centuries, the never-ending thirst for technological advancements has resulted in some of finest inventions like electricity, vaccination, transportation, etc. which has resulted in betterment of human life. Similarly, over the last few years, the term “Machine Learning” has come a major buzzword in the Technological world. So, what exactly is this Machine Learning? Machine Learning can be defined as a unique domain of computer science where the system learns incrementally from the data accumulated and in subsequent stages, enhances the implementation of a specific assignment, without being programmed in detail. Some of the breakthroughs from machine learning involve driver-less cars, spam detection, computer vision efficient search in the internet, better understanding of the human genetics, semantic translation from one language to another, image/pattern recognition.

Machine Learning has become so popular that it is being employed in fields that were previously considered an afterthought. For example, Government organizations which were considered backwards in terms of technological developments have started employing machine learning to control crime, improve efficiency of various processes. Machine Learning has become so omnipresent, that we probably come across it a few times a day without even realizing it. But sometimes the motivation for the Machine Learning exercise is questioned. Let’s


discuss a series of events which bring forth the social and ethical issues existing in Machine Learning.

Target – Pregnancy Prediction:

Any time we go shopping, we share some private and confidential information about ourselves like our utilization pattern, our likes and dislikes, affinity for a particular brand and so on. And many a times, the sellers are observing these trends to identify which products we are likely to buy, which products if provided at a discount would make us happy, which products we’d still buy even if prices were hiked. Target, a major retail giant in the US, made use of the internally available customer data and externally available public data to identify which of the current customers were expecting babies and campaigned their promotions. Target did not violate any privacy laws here. The fact that Target can learn something this private about their customer lawfully does not make it ethically suitable. Target did not take into account the ethical implications and customer sensitivities into account while working on this project.

Target did not stop with just predicting pregnancy of customers. It went ahead and sent emails to all customers whom it predicted were pregnant. Target should have at least been subtle with their communication to customers, especially in a very sensitive and private occasion like this. Target dropped a mail to a teenage girl who didn’t reveal information about her pregnancy to her parents, only to be read by her father. Just because something unethical



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