Lectures  |  ,   |  February 3, 2019

What We Really Mean When We Say “Ethics”

Lecture by Molly Steenson.
Presented at Interaction 19.

We’re all weary and wary in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, questions around Google’s involvement with Project Maven or China, and the rise of fake news. It’s no surprise that we are calling for some time to reconsider what it means to do design in the sphere of tech and AI and to do it ethically.

In 2018–19 alone, the use of the term ethics is exploding—not least in the interaction design community.

But when we say ethics in design, what do we really mean? Right and wrong, or righteousness? The good life or fear of bad actors? Is it really ethics, or is it something else? And how will that help us to be better designers.

This talk is based on a study on the different angles on “ethics” that designers are taking today. It starts with case studies of how major tech companies and universities are approaching ethics. It bounces those studies against an analysis of how words like “ethics,” “AI” and design are used and what it turns out they mean when we use them—which is different than what we think, and sometimes want them to mean. In the end, this talk will help to show us where we might be able to place our energy and attention as designers toward creating a fair, just, safe, equitable —and ethical— digital world. Designers are uniquely poised to do this work, and in this talk, we will look at how.

Runtime 24 minutes.

Molly Wright Steenson is a designer, writer, speaker, and professor whose work focuses on the intersection and implications of design, architecture, and artificial intelligence. She is the author of Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (MIT Press,  2017), which examines architecture’s interactions with computation, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence. At Carnegie Mellon University Molly is Senior Associate Dean for Research in the College of Fine Arts, the K&L Gates Associate Professor in Ethics and Computational Technologies & an associate professor in the School of Design.