Want Artificial Intelligence that cares about people? Ethical thinking needs to start with the researchers

We’re delighted to feature a guest post from Grainne Faller and Louise Holden of the Magna Carta For Data initiative.

The project was established in 2014 by the Insight Centre for Data Analytics  – one of the largest data research centres in Europe – as a statement of its commitment to ethical data research within its labs, and the broader global movement to embed ethics in data science research and development.

Magna Carta For Data 1

A self-driving car is hurtling towards a group of people in the middle of a narrow bridge. Should it drive on, and hit the group? Or should it drive off the bridge, avoiding the group of people but almost certainly killing its passenger? Now, what about if there are three people on the bridge but five people in the car? Can you – should you – design algorithms that will change the way the car reacts depending on these situations?

This is just one of millions of ethical issues faced by researchers of artificial intelligence and big data every hour of every day around the world. Continue reading

Should you have sex with an AI?

It might not be a question you’re asking yourself right now, but according to a California-based developer of artificially intelligent sex robots, they will be soon be as popular as porn.

sex robots

This is, at least, the hope of Matt McMullen. He’s the founder of RealDoll, a “love doll” company featured in the documentary, “The Sex Robots Are Coming”.  The film seeks to convince its audience that combining undeniably lifelike dolls like Matt’s with interactive, artificially intelligent features will lead to an explosion in the market for robotic lovers.

But is this okay? Many say that it absolutely isn’t. Continue reading

6 Tech Terms Every Adult Should Learn About To Avoid Being Left Behind


Not for the first time, Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken out this week about how important it is for children to learn computer code. He’s not alone in believing that this “language of the future” will be critical for kids growing up right now. In a sea of unknowns one thing appears to be certain: technical understanding is a very valuable asset indeed.

It’s interesting then, that in spite of remarkable efforts to equip the adults of tomorrow with such skills, very little is being done to familiarize young adults, middle-aged parents, or retirees (with impressively long-life expectancies!) with the signature terms of the “AI Age”. This seems a like an oversight. Continue reading

Five AI misnomers (probably)

artificial intelligence

Not being an artificial intelligence “expert”, an egghead, or a mad scientist, I can sometimes find the trajectory of AI confusing. In my reading, I’ve come across evidence to convince me in entirely contradictory directions, and there is certainly a lot of tension in the public conversation.

Are we in the run-up to an AI apocalypse? A technological utopia? Or, even with all our computational power, is AI still as dumb as a rock?  Continue reading

Who gets to choose what’s important in the future?

tech meeting

Last week, I was reading an excellent Wired interview with Kate Crawford of AI Now, when a remark she made lodged itself into my head. It has been percolating there ever since, probably because the topic is a rather important one: if we’re talking about the social impact of tech, shouldn’t the conversation invite and include those with expertise outside of the field of technology?

“Of course!” you might chime in, “we should all have a say in what shapes our future!”. Agreed. And yet, despite noticeably more public conversation about the social impact and ethics of tech in recent months, it often feels as though many of the louder voices are of scientists and tech experts who are simply ‘turning their hand’ to the humanities.  Continue reading

Google search figures reveal interest in tech surged by 78% in last 12months

tech interest

I conducted some desk research today which I hoped would either reinforce or eliminate my hunch that general interest in all-things-tech is growing. Anyone who has read Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book on the role of intuition in such judgments, will know that the only way that I can (possibly!) get away from making bold claims like “the general population are becoming more curious about the mechanisms of tech” is by somehow providing a statistical proof.

Enter Google Trends, and some rough – yet hopefully revealing – investigating on my part. Here’s where I got to:

Google trends

  • The popularity of the search term “what is Big Data” has increased by 54%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is an algorithm” has increased by 56%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is artificial intelligence” has increased by 83%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is machine learning” has increased by 132% (!)
  • The overall popularity of these tech-related search terms increased by 78%.

All the figures are over a 12-month period (Oct 2016 – Oct 2017), and my increases are based on Google Trends’ “interest over time measure” which assigns a value relative to peak popularity. It is also interesting to look at these same search terms over a longer period (see 3-year and 5-year charts) where the same trajectory can also be seen quite neatly.

My methodology, of course, is unashamedly unsophisticated. The list of terms I have used is certainly not exhaustive, and I’m aware that words like “algorithm” are not exclusive to the tech lexicon. I figured that the “what is” prefix would generally denote a novice search, and I would probably defend this as an as-good-as-anything-else, finger-in-the-air way to gauge if searches are from new, enquiring minds. Nevertheless, as discussed, my objective was to find some indication that my original intuition was correct. This is not intended to reflect a rigorous and conclusive study…

So, what does it mean? Well, it seems to confirm something that we all think we already know. Namely, that tech is migrating from the nerdy peripheries to center stage. And if we can reasonably assume these searches imply a quest for knowledge, then we might use this to speculate about a future where tech knowledge is decentralized, and better diffused throughout broader society.

Instinctively, this feels like a good thing. So many ethical discussions about tech focus on worries about privacy, manipulation, and the imbalance of power. When we talk about tech in society, the conversation can often turn to doomsday scenarios. But the upward lines on these charts might tell us something different. An interested and informed general population might help mitigate against ill effects in the next few years.

Furthermore, it’s easy to forget the many, many good things that are happening in tech which – with an increasingly engaged population – could truly benefit the whole of society. Just casually browsing the news this week, two very different stories caught my eye. The first was about 28-year old James Green, who believes his life was saved by his Apple Watch, which alerted him to a sudden and extreme increase in his heart rate and prompted him to seek urgent help for what turned out to be a deadly pulmonary embolism. The second was about Pinchas Gutter, a holocaust survivor and participant in the New Dimensions in Testimony project, which helps keep history alive by allowing (in this case) visitors to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Toronto to interact with an image of Mr. Gutter, and ask questions about his experiences during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In both cases – but in very different ways – technology, algorithms, data, and machine learning are being employed to save us. To increase our awareness in ways that (I believe) can only be described as positive.  The more we all understand about how these technologies work, the more likely it is that they will survive, thrive and new, similar ideas will evolve to the advantage of all of us.

This is, obviously, an optimistic view. But I think when we’re talking about ethics it can be important not to artificially suppress a well-founded glimmer of hope where it occurs. Only time how will tell how it will all play out.