News  |    |  August 27, 2019

Silicon Valley’s Secret Philosophers Should Share Their Work

News article by Alexis Papazoglou.
Published in Wired.


Tech giants must stop hiring philosophers as pawns, and allow them to make sense of the world tech is molding.

Karl Marx famously complained that “philosophers have only interpreted the world … The point, however, is to change it.” While it’s doubtful Silicon Valley’s mission to disrupt the world was inspired by Marx, the father of communism captures how many capitalist engineers seem to feel about philosophy: a pointless attempt to answer theoretical questions in the pursuit of fuzzy concepts like wisdom and the examined life. Worse, philosophy is notoriously bad at offering solutions to the problems it poses. And yet, tech giants like Google and Apple have hired in-house philosophers and several others have sought their counsel. What could the solutions-oriented capital of the world possibly want from philosophers?

The short answer is we don’t really know, nor does Silicon Valley seem to want us to know. Apple’s philosopher in residence, Joshua Cohen, a former Stanford professor and author of The Arc of the Moral Universe and Other Essays , is forbidden from speaking publicly about his work for the company. DeepMind’s AI ethics board has been shrouded in mystery since 2014. Google’s corresponding board, which included prominent Oxford technology philosopher Luciano Floridi, was dissolved just a week after its launch, leaving us guessing about its role (though the board also would not have been allowed to discuss its work publicly). Similarly, Microsoft’s AI ethics oversight committee doesn’t disclose its thinking behind vetoing products and clients. [ . . . ]