June 21, 2018

Princeton Dialogues of AI and Ethics: Launching case studies

Summary: We are releasing four case studies on AI and ethics, as part of the Princeton Dialogues on AI and Ethics.

The impacts of rapid developments in artificial intelligence (“AI”) on society—both real and not yet realized—raise deep and pressing questions about our philosophical ideals and institutional arrangements. AI is currently applied in a wide range of fields—such as medical diagnosis, criminal sentencing, online content moderation, and public resource management—but it is only just beginning to realize its potential to influence practically all areas of human life, including geopolitical power balances. As these technologies advance and increasingly come to mediate our everyday lives, it becomes necessary to consider how they may reflect prevailing philosophical perspectives and preferences. We must also assess how the architectural design of AI technologies today might influence human values in the future. This step is essential in order to identify the positive opportunities presented by AI and unleash these technologies’ capabilities in the most socially advantageous way possible while being mindful of potential harms. Critics question the extent to which individual engineers and proprietors of AI should take responsibility for the direction of these developments, or whether centralized policies are needed to steer growth and incentives in the right direction. What even is the right direction? How can it be best achieved?

Princeton’s University Center for Human Values (UCHV) and the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) are excited to announce a joint research project, “The Princeton Dialogues on AI and Ethics,” in the emerging field of artificial intelligence (broadly defined) and its interaction with ethics and political theory. The aim of this project is to develop a set of intellectual reasoning tools to guide practitioners and policy makers, both current and future, in developing the ethical frameworks that will ultimately underpin their technical and legislative decisions. More than ever before, individual-level engineering choices are poised to impact the course of our societies and human values. And yet there have been limited opportunities for AI technology actors, academics, and policy makers to come together to discuss these outcomes and their broader social implications in a systematic fashion. This project aims to provide such opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion, as well as in-depth reflection.

We convened two invitation-only workshops in October 2017 and March 2018, in which philosophers, political theorists, and machine learning experts met to assess several real-world case studies that elucidate common ethical dilemmas in the field of AI. The aim of these workshops was to facilitate a collaborative learning experience which enabled participants to dive deeply into the ethical considerations that ought to guide decision-making at the engineering level and highlight the social shifts they may be affecting. The first outcomes of these deliberations have now been published in the form of case studies. To access these educational materials, please see our dedicated website https://aiethics.princeton.edu. These cases are intended for use across university departments and in corporate training in order to equip the next generation of engineers, managers, lawyers, and policy makers with a common set of reasoning tools for working on AI governance and development.

In March 2018, we also hosted a public conference, titled “AI & Ethics,” where interested academics, policy makers, civil society advocates, and private sector representatives from diverse fields came to Princeton to discuss topics related to the development and governance of AI: “International Dimensions of AI” and “AI and Its Democratic Frontiers”. This conference sought to use the ethics and engineering knowledge foundations developed through the initial case studies to inspire discussion on AI technology’s wider social effects.

This project is part of a wider effort at Princeton University to investigate the intersection between AI technology, politics, and philosophy. There is a particular emphasis on the ways in which the interconnected forces of technology and its governance simultaneously influence and are influenced by the broader social structures in which they are situated. The Princeton Dialogues on AI and Ethics makes use of the university’s exceptional strengths in computer science, public policy, and philosophy. The project also seeks opportunities for cooperation with existing projects in and outside of academia.

Getting serious about research ethics: AI and machine learning

[This blog post is a continuation of our series about research ethics in computer science.]

The widespread deployment of artificial intelligence and specifically machine learning algorithms causes concern for some fundamental values in society, such as employment, privacy, and discrimination. While these algorithms promise to optimize social and economic processes, research in this area has exposed some major deficiencies in the social consequences of their operation. Some consequences may be invisible or intangible, such as erecting computational barriers to social mobility through a variety of unintended biases, while others may be directly life threatening. At the CITP’s recent conference on computer science ethics, Joanna Bryson, Barbara Engelhardt, and Matt Salganik discussed how their research led them to work on machine learning ethics.

Joanna Bryson has made a career researching artificial intelligence, machine learning, and understanding their consequences on society. She has found that people tend to identify with the perceived consciousness of artificially intelligent artifacts, such as robots, which then complicates meaningful conversations about the ethics of their development and use. By equating artificially intelligent systems to humans or animals, people deduce its moral status and can ignore their engineered nature.

While the cognitive power of AI systems can be impressive, Bryson argues they do not equate to humans and should not be regulated as such. On the one hand, she demonstrates the power of an AI system to replicate societal biases in a recent paper (co-authored with CITP’s Aylin Caliskan and Arvind Narayanan) by letting systems trained on a corpus of text from the World Wide Web learn the implicit biases around the gender of certain professions. On the other hand, she argues that machines cannot ‘suffer’ in the same way as humans do, which is one of the main deterrents for humans in current legal systems. Bryson proposes we understand both AI and ethics as human-made artifacts. It is therefore appropriate to rely ethics – rather than science – to determine the moral status of artificially intelligent systems.

Barbara Engelhardt’s work focuses on machine learning in computational biology, specifically genomics and medicine. Her main area of concern is the reliance on recommendation systems, such as we encounter on Amazon and Netflix, to make decisions in other domains such as healthcare, financial planning, and career decisions. These machine learning systems rely on data as well as social networks to make inferences.

Engelhardt describes examples where using patient records to inform medical decisions can lead to erroneous recommendation systems for diagnosis as well as harmful medical interventions. For example, the symptoms of heart disease differ substantially between men and women, and so do their appropriate treatments. Most data collected about this condition was from men, leaving a blind spot for the diagnosis of heart disease in women. Bias, in this case, is useful and should be maintained for correct medical interventions. In another example, however, data was collected from a variety of hospitals in somewhat segregated poor and wealthy areas. The data appear to show that cancers in children from hispanic and caucasian races develop differently. However, inferences based on this data fail to take into account the biasing effect of economic status in determining at which stage of symptoms different families decide seek medical help. In turn, this determines the stage of development at which the oncological data is collected. The recommendation system with this type of bias confuses race with economic barriers to medical help, which will lead to harmful diagnosis and treatments.

Matt Salganik proposes that the machine learning community draws some lessons from ethics procedures in social science. Machine learning is a powerful tool the can be used responsibly or inappropriately. He proposes that it can be the task of ethics to guide researchers, engineers, and developers to think carefully about the consequences of their artificially intelligent inventions. To this end, Salganik proposes a hope-based and principle-based approach to research ethics in machine learning. This is opposed to a fear-based and rule-based approach in social science, or the more ad hoc ethics culture that we encounter in data and computer science. For example, machine learning ethics should include pre-research review through forms that are reviewed by third parties to avoid groupthink and encourage researchers’ reflexivity. Given the fast pace of development, though, the field should avoid a compliance mentality typically found at institutional review boards of univeristies. Any rules to be complied with are unlikely to stand the test of time in the fast-moving world of machine learning, which would result in burdensome and uninformed ethics scrutiny. Salganik develops these themes in his new book Bit By Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age, which has an entire chapter about ethics.”

See a video of the panel here.

Getting serious about research ethics: Security and Internet Measurement

[This blog post is a continuation of our series about research ethics in computer science that we started last week]

Research projects in the information security and Internet measurement sub-disciplines typically interact with third-party systems or devices to collect a large amounts of data. Scholars engaging in these fields are interested to collect data about technical phenomenon. As a result of the widespread use of the Internet, their experiments can interfere with human use of devices and reveal all sorts of private information, such as their browsing behaviour. As awareness of the unintended impact on Internet users grew, these communities have spent considerable time debating their ethical standards at conferences, dedicated workshops, and in journal publications. Their efforts have culminated in guidelines for topics such as vulnerability disclosure or privacy, whereby the aim is to protect unsuspecting Internet users and human implicated in technical research.


Prof. Nick Feamster, Prof. Prateek Mittal, moderator Prof. Elana Zeide, and I discussed some important considerations for research ethics in a panel dedicated to these sub-disciplines at the recent CITP conference on research ethics in computer science communities. We started by explaining that gathering empirical data is crucial to infer the state of values such as privacy and trust in communication systems. However, as methodological choices in computer science will often have ethical impacts, researchers need to be empowered to reflect on their experimental setup meaningfully.


Prof. Feamster discussed several cases where he had sought advice from ethical oversight bodies, but was left with unsatisfying guidance. For example, when his team conducted Internet censorship measurements (pdf), they were aware that they were initiating requests and creating data flows from devices owned by unsuspecting Internet users. These new information flows were created in realms where adversaries were also operating, for example in the form of a government censors. This may pose a risk to the owners of devices that were implicated in the experimentation and data collection. The ethics board, however, concluded that such measurements did not meet the strict definition of “human subjects research”, which thereby excluded the need for formal review. Prof. Feamster suggests computer scientists reassess how they think about their technologies or newly initiated data flows that can be misused by adversaries, and take that into account in ethical review procedures.


Ethical tensions and dilemmas in technical Internet research could be seen as interesting research problems for scholars, argued Prof. Mittal. For example, to reason about privacy and trust in the anonymous Tor network, researchers need to understand to what extent adversaries can exploit vulnerabilities and thus observe Internet traffic of individual users. The obvious, relatively easy, and ethically dubious measurement would be to attack existing Tor nodes and attempt to collect real-time traffic of identifiable users. However, Prof. Mittal gave an insight into his own critical engagement with alternative design choices, which led his team to create a new node within Princeton’s university network that they subsequently attacked. This more lab-based approach eliminates risks for unsuspecting Internet users, but allowed for the same inferences to be done.


I concluded the panel, suggesting that ethics review boards at universities, academic conferences, and scholarly journals engage actively with computer scientists to collect valuable data whilst respecting human values. Currently, a panel on non-experts in either computer science or research ethics are given a single moment to judge the full methodology of a research proposal or the resulting paper. When a thumbs-down is issued, researchers have no or limited opportunity to remedy their ethical shortcomings. I argued that a better approach would be an iterative process with in-person meetings and more in-depth consideration of design alternatives, as demonstrated in a recent paper about Advertising as a Platform for Internet measurements (pdf). This is the approach advocates in the Networked Systems Ethics Guidelines. Cross-disciplinary conversation, rather than one-time decisions, allow for a mutual understanding between the gatekeepers of ethical standards and designers of useful computer science research.


See the video of the panel here.