On May 1st, 2019, the initial meeting of the UCL Digital Ethics Forum was held. GovTech Lab’s Dr. Zeynep Engin directed this initiative, with GovTech Lab’s Prof. Philip Treleaven, Dr. Catherine Mulligan (CTO) and Dr. Emre Kazim all in attendance and participating. The forum participants comprised of high-level representation from UCL’s various faculties and the Deans’ of Law (Prof. Piet Eeckhout), Bartlett (Prof. Alan Penn) and Life Sciences (Prof. Geraint Rees).

The forum was opened by addresses from Prof. Joanna Chataway (Head of Department, Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) UCL) and, Prof. John Shawe-Taylor (Head of Department Computer Science UCL).

Prof. Shawe-Taylor covered the following points (in summary):

1. The complexity of technology and automation, resulting in issues previously unconsidered: challenging to predict what the ethical problems emerge. For example, the bias of newspapers is not new – we have tolerated this because it has never been too effective. Machine learning is active – can we tolerate this? Importantly, this is not a problem with the technology; indeed, it is delivering what it promises. However, it is resulting in unethical consequences.

2. AI is revealing things we think about ourselves – the intelligence of machines may be more advanced than that of humans – so what distinguishes us from machines? We need to know this to think about ethics, i.e. what are we predicting and protecting by engaging in digital ethics. Indeed, life and the world at large is unfair – perhaps AI highlights this and forces us to think again about these notions.

3. A major UNESCO publication is in the process of being ratified for international adoption, which may set the standard for digital ethics. This document was compiled in a highly interdisciplinary manner. This document can form the basis from which informed discussions can take place at UCL.

4. Ethical questions need to be coded! Engineers make things, and as such, it is paramount that ethical concerns and critiques are translatable in terms that render them ‘designable,’ i.e. ethics by design. The ethical questions cannot only be put to the engineers.

In the next blog, Prof. Chataway’s address will be published. Subsequent blogs by other participants will follow this.