News  |  ,   |  June 26, 2018

Morality in the Machines

News article by Erick Trickey.
Published in the Harvard Law Bulletin.


Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society are collaborating with MIT scholars to study driverless cars, social media feeds, and criminal justice algorithms, to make sure openness and ethics inform artificial intelligence.

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard is renowned for its research on the online world. Similarly, the MIT Media Lab is acclaimed for collaborations in which technologists and other experts invent and reinvent how humans experience—and can be aided by—technology.

In a new course for students at HLS and MIT, the two institutions have come together to discuss how to regulate driverless cars, respond to fake news, and gain access to secret math formulas built to dispense justice. Two professors lead a lightning-fast discourse in their new, team-taught class, The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence.

Jonathan Zittrain ’95, a Harvard Law and computer science professor, asks questions about rights and regulations, while Joi Ito, the MIT Media Lab’s director (and a visiting professor at HLS), adds philosophical and political comments. Together, they riff on music-industry copyright controversies, referencing Rod Stewart and Elvis Presley. They debate why Japanese culture places more moral restraints on capitalism than American culture.

The students pepper Zittrain and Ito with questions inspired by the news. One student asks about digital privacy rights and online companies’ freewheeling approaches to customer data.

“The American paradigm is heavily choice-based: The more you can just say you’re giving somebody a choice, whether it’s opt in or opt out, you’re done,” Zittrain says. But he thinks we face too many privacy choices to keep track of them. “If the choice is, do you want to get screwed over or not, don’t give me the choice. Just don’t screw me over.”

“In medicine, there’s an interesting way to think about consent versus duty of care,” adds Ito. “We’re missing that right now in the digital world. Maybe there’s a way to learn from [that] and apply it to a place like Facebook.” . . .