University of Michigan Showcases New AI Ethics Center

The Center of Ethics, Society and Computing has been unveiled by the University of Michigan, with a mission to intervene when digital media and tech replicate inequality, exclusion, deception, racism or sexism.

by Steve Marowski, / January 27, 2020
The graphic for the University of Michigan Center for Ethics, Society and Computing TNS

(TNS) — Researchers at the University of Michigan have been exploring the need to set ethics standards and policies when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence, and they now have their own place to do so.

The university has created a new Center of Ethics, Society and Computing (ESC) that will focus on AI, data usage, augmented and virtual reality, privacy, open data and identity.

According to the center’s website, the name and abbreviation alludes to the “ESC” key on a computer keyboard, which was added to interrupt a program when it produced unwanted results.

“In the same way, the Center for Ethics, Society and Computing (ESC — pronounced ‘escape’) is dedicated to intervening when digital media and computing technologies reproduce inequality, exclusion, corruption, deception, racism or sexism,” the center’s mission statement reads.

The center will bring together scholars who are committed to “feminist, justice-focused, inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches to computing,” the university said in a news release.

Associate Director Silvia Lindtner said the center has been in a soft launch phase since March 2019. The idea for ESC was born out of making a critical engagement with the politics and ethics of computing a central aspect of technology research and design, she said.

“We established ESC to build on and give legitimacy to the long-term scholarship and activism in technology, engineering and design, and to create an interdisciplinary space to explore and apply critical, justice-oriented and feminist approaches to computing and technology research,” Lindtner said.

Director Christian Sandvig said the center is hosting a visiting artist working on robotics this term, and that the center includes faculty from computer science, architecture, music and business schools.

“We are fairly unique because we are aggressively pursuing research approaches and topics beyond what people normally think about as ‘computing,’” Sandvig said.

Lindtner said the university’s public nature allows the center to engage deeply with the broader public, policy experts and actors in the social justice movement.

“This is a topic that used to be on the fringes, but more recently has gotten broader attention as we have experienced many unintended consequences of technology,” Lindtner said.

Some of the concerns the center will be tackling include gender and racial stereotyping in AI and data-based algorithms, as well as an overall lack of accountability and digital justice.

Sandvig said a lot of companies are now rushing to nominal ethics conversations as a solution to the negative perceptions of their products, but ESC is not interested in “ethics-washing.”

“We’re looking ahead to difficult debates about the future path we are steering with technology in society,” Sandvig said. “We need to make it normal that there is an extensive program of research about this topic — ethics, justice, technology, people and the future — and it must be central to the enterprise of developing technology and training students.”

ESC hosted an opening event on Jan. 24. The talk was video recorded.

Speakers at the event include Julia Angwin, Danah Boyd, Andre Brock, Marc DaCosta, Jen Gennai, Holly Okonkow and Monroe Price.

The center is sponsored by the School of Information; the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, and the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts at U of M.

©2020, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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