News |Conference—"Moral Code: Ethics in the Digital Age"

Conference—"Moral Code: Ethics in the Digital Age"

Prof. Luciano Floridi | Photo: Aaron Perez

“AI should support human responsibility, not remove it,” philosopher Luciano Floridi stated during the conference “Moral Code” in Los Angeles. The renowned professor of philosophy from Oxford traveled to the West Coast following an invitation by Thomas Mann House and UCLA Digital Humanities, to speak at the two-day interdisciplinary conference about the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

During a fireside chat at the Thomas Mann House on May 27, Floridi engaged in conversation with professor of AI and machine learning and Thomas Mann Fellow Damian Borth (St. Gallen). In the chat, which was moderated by Andrew Culp (CalArts), Floridi expressed optimism in regards to an international consensus on moral guidelines in dealing with artificial intelligence. For example, the European Commission’s “Ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI” mark an important milestone. When it comes to the discussion of moral principles of artificial intelligence, Damian Borth was less confident. Even though AI can be used for ethically useful ends, the compliance to the respective rules remain an unsolved problem.

On May 28, a further immersion in these topics took place at UCLA for a day-long conference with roughly 130 attendees and participants. After the keynote by Luciano Floridi, which offered an overview of the themes, as well as prospect of an ethical system, the day was structured by three panels. In the first panel, “why not craft better humans?”, artistic, philosophical, and medical perspectives examined different aspects around the intersection of human and machine: Dong Song (Biomedical Engineering, USC) reported of research into electrical stimulation of the human brain, the reduction of symptoms for patients with epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer disease, to the development of memory implants. Nader Pouratian (Neurosurgeon, UCLA), spoke about established therapeutic methods with brain implants, but also shed a critical light on future potentials of enhancement these technologies promise. It may become apparent that, just as is the case with plastic surgery, the boundaries between therapy and improvement of the human body will become blurry. Josh Berson (Berggruen Fellow) contextualized human behavior and self-understanding in the age of digital technologies through both anthropological examples as well as a historical perspective on our usage of tools. Louisa Clement (Villa Aurora Fellow) discussed her work as an artist, the experimentation with new media and materials as well as how artistic work can contribute to education, criticality and speculation on the frontier of imagination.

The second panel asked: “What does a just AI economy look like?” Thomas Mann Fellow Damian Borth spoke about the technical and economic possibilities and risks in hisprofession, with a focus on the centrality of the collection of data. Andrew Culp focused on the underlying economic system: not only do we live in inequality at the moment, the system is becoming more and more unequal. Any technological advances within this system will rather accelerate this development; it thus remains important to also think about fundamental restructuring and organization. Sarah T. Roberts (Information Studies, UCLA) added to this by explication labor conditions and contemporary exploitation, which are fueled by artificial intelligence and algorithms. Colonial structures are becoming once again visible, while the virtualization and delocalization of this kind of exploitation is leading to an isolation that makes protests and countermovements of solidarity increasingly difficult.

In the final panel Safiya Noble (Information Studies and African American Studies, UCLA/USC), Todd Presner (Germanic Languages, UCLA) and Ramesh Srinivasan (Information Studies, UCLA) talked about the question “can algorithms be ethical?” Todd Presner steered the attention of the audience to the criterium of agency. It follows that the moral status of algorithms depends not only whether they are able to perform actions, but also if the can independently decide for or against the execution of those actions. Safiya Noble focused on the ability and effectiveness of algorithmic actions. Algorithms are not “simply mathematic” but rather operate within a socio-political reality; as such we have to remain aware that they are shaped by inequality, ideology, prejudice and interest. Ramesh Srinivasan encouraged to create counter-cultures and use algorithms and AI for social justice concerns.

The event was actively accompanied and commentated upon on Twitter. The audience posed countless constructive and critical questions, further advancing the discussions of the panelists.



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