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The Problem with Trolleys at re:publica

I gave my first talk about ethics and driverless cars for a non-specialist audience at re:publica 2016. In this I look at the problem with the Trolley Problem, the thought experiment being used to train machine learning algorithms in driverless cars. Here, I focus on the problem that logic-based notions of ethics has transformed into an engineering problem; and suggest that this ethics-as-engineering approach is what will allow for American law and insurance companies to assign blame and responsibility in the inevitable case of accidents. There is also the tension that machines are assumed to be correct, except when they aren’t, and that this sits in a difficult history of ‘praising machines’ and ‘punishing humans’ for accidents and errors. I end by talking about questions of accountability that look beyond algorithms and software themselves to the sites of production of algorithms themselves.

Here’s the full talk.

Works cited in this talk:

1. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s 1985 paper in the Yale Law Journal,The Trolley Problem
2. Patrick Lin’s work on ethics and driverless cars. Also relevant is the work of his doctoral students at UPenn looking at applications of Blaise Pascal’s work to the “Lin Problem”
3. Madeleine Elish and Tim Hwang’s paper ‘Praise the machine! Punish the human!’ as part of the Intelligence & Autonomy group at Data & Society
4. Madeleine Elish’s paper on ‘moral crumple zones’; there’s a good talk and discussion with her on the website of the proceedings of the WeRobot 2016 event at Miami Law School.
5. Langdon Winner’s ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics’
6. Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory.

Character assassination I, II, III

Character Assassination

the act of deliberately attempting to destroy a person’s reputation by defamatory remarks

I could write about the auburn-haired woman who I sit across from at work, the one with the tics and the lazy eye. She is an only child with that peculiar sense of phantom wholeness only children have. People think she is a bureaucrat, and it may be that I am the only one who can sense the evil lurking in her. She doesn’t take risks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the world needs people who can look at things rationally and calmly for a long time before acting. She is someone out of a book written by Lionel Shriver about a family full of broken people. She would be the dark horse – or the roan maybe – quietly spinning lies and deceit in the corner and all the while seeming to be the most gentle. What is it like to get into the head of a character that you dislike and yet feel empathy for? I think I would write this character falling in love with a boy much below her class – these things are very important to the English, did I mention she was English – and did madcap things with him, like walk naked down the high street and almost get arrested for it.


I could write the heartbreaking story of my best friend who fell apart from anger following the tragic death of her roommate from breast cancer. The roommate was one of those unlucky young women – 31 when she was diagnosed – who unknowingly harboured a lump like a dark grudge. She was diagnosed and dead within six months. It was six months of my friend visiting her in the hospital, accompanying her to chemotherapy, comforting the boyfriend and the girl’s family. My friend couldn’t bring herself to attend the funeral or the memorial. She was so wrapped up in her own grief, it seemed at the time, that she couldn’t reach out to the roommate’s husband (the boyfriend married her while she was dying in hospital), sister or family. She mourned for weeks and the decision to stay in their shared apartment took an additional toll on her. Months later, when I couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer,I asked her what she needed to do to get over it and move on from the roommate’s death. A lot of Old Monk later, sprawled across the divan staring at the ceiling fan, a tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and she said that she fucking hated them all, her dead roommate’s family that is. They didn’t really thank her enough for all that she did and she has never forgiven them for it. She was furious that she had been “passed over” without enough praise and thanks. She felt used. She wasn’t going to get over it until they thanked her properly for everything she had done.

There is the woman with the watery grey eyes and a gaze so steady that I believe it gives her the power of endurance, as if she could stand in a light blizzard in her mustard yellow coat and not move for hours. She arrives at her studio-office every morning, which is on the ground floor of my apartment building. She is an illustrator for school text books. Every morning she has müsli and a cafe latte at the Swiss bakery and then goes to her studio after checking for mail, sometimes pausing to look at the junk mail. She makes herself a second cup of coffee, usually black because the milk has gone bad. She sniffs at the milk every morning. She is at her desk by five minutes to 9 o’clock. She spends a few minutes rearranging her papers, checking on her pencils, scanner, computer. She then gets down to work and does not move for three hours. She refills her coffee cup in a sort of daze and then returns to her desk. She is fixed, but fluid, for those three hours, sitting in one place but appearing to be very far away somewhere inside herself, or her work. At twelve o’clock she goes for a walk, and to eat lunch if she hasn’t brought a sandwich with her. She comes back looking alert, bright-eyed, and flushed as if she has been exerting herself by walking up a hill; the approach to our building is flat however. Her afternoon routine is in complete contrast to her morning one in that there is no routine. It’s difficult to know how she will spend her afternoons. Some days she just reads, other days she types furiously at her computers, and some days she browses through what must be clickbait – there’s a sort of glazed look in her eyes as her index finger clicks through at a regular beat. The days she reads she revisits some of the morning’s deep torpor, unmoving, lost in what she is doing. And then there are those days when she lies on the chaise lounge and cries. This is preceded by a lazy pacing of the studio, staring at the floor and then collapsing into the chair with deep sobs that seem to come from very deep within and wrack her narrow frame. She seems to be able to cry for hours on end, sustaining herself through a particular rhythm. Each long, slow wave of tears building up to a crescendo as if the memories or feelings come faster and harder like contractions, they take hold of her and she seems to be as if possessed for she can seem to go on crying for a while at a loud, fevered pace. Then it ebbs and you can see her gasping for breath, realising her own tiredness, eventually stopping with a series of whimpers and falling back till the next fresh wave crashes over her. Hours later, exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep. She leaves the studio every evening at five o’clock.

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.


The algorithms of ethics. (And puppycats)

I’m trying to remember when I first heard the phrase ‘the ethics of algorithms’ (TEoA) and why it bothers me. It sounded like something from a branding exercise triumph.TEoA has dogged me; it has been the intellectual equivalent of an adorable little puppy that snaps at your ankles in encouragement to play, and then opens its eyes wide to melt you with love and fake neediness, saying take me home please, Mommy. (Maybe I’m referring to a cat and not a dog; perhaps only cats and toddlers are capable of such machinations? A puppy-cat!). The ‘ethics of algorithms’ rolls off the tongue nicely, sounds important and meaningful, and captures the degrees of concern and outrage we feel about the powerful role that computer algorithms have in society, and will continue to.

I recently started a DPhil (a kind of PhD) in big data and ethics (longer version here), so I’m somewhat invested in the phrase TEoA because that is what I’m often asked if my work is about. It isn’t. However there are people working on the ethics of algorithms and the good people at CIHR recently published a paper on it which I think you should read right after you finish reading my post, because the paper is a good description of the way algorithms work in our quantified society. I’m not referring to any of these things in my work however. What I’m working on is the algorithms of ethics. By this I mean that I’m going to think about the ethics first and understand how they work, where they come from, and what that ethics [can] mean in the context of big data.

The reason why I think TEoA is a cute but needy puppycat as described above: too atomising, deterministic even, and an outcome rather than a starting point. Why would you start with the algorithm, which is the outcome of long chains of technical, scientific, legal, economic events, and not with a point earlier on in the process of its development? I think the focus on the outcome, the algorithm, is also indicative of how we think of ethics as outcomes, rather than a series of processes, negotiations. Or the fact that we think about ethics as outcomes has led to a focus on algorithms. Both, possibly.

I don’t think algorithms have ethics; people have ethics. Algorithms govern perhaps, they make decisions, but I don’t think they have or make ethics. Of course saying ‘the ethics of algorithms’ isn’t to be taken literally; it’s the assertion that algorithms that make decisions have been programmed (to learn) how to do so because of humans (who have the capacity for ethical reasoning). However the phrase is misleading because it seems like algorithms are in fact making ethical decisions. At the same time, algorithms cannot function without making some kind of judgment (not moral judgments; though algorithms can do things that can have moral implications), it wouldn’t be able to proceed to the next step if not. But does this amount to ethics? I suppose it depends on what ethics you’re subscribing to, but I’d say no

‘Ethics of algorithms’ could also refer to the ethical features or properties of algorithms, not the ethics that algorithms are assumed to produce. Kraemer, van Overveld and Peterson have a paper on it here which is based on medical imaging analysis. This work suggests that algorithms have value judgments baked into them, their functioning but concludes the ethics is the domain of systems design(ers) and that users should have more control in the outcomes of algorithmic functioning.

My work begins with the hypothesis that principles based on classical ethics (like the oft-quoted Trolley Problem in the context of autonomous vehicles, something that I believe was developed so that journalists could write their stories) are not really appropriate to big data environments (I refer to this as a crisis of ethics), and to come up with alternate approaches to thinking about ethics. Along the way I hope to develop methods to study ethics in quantified environments, not just come up with “the answer”. (Thankfully, this is a humanities PhD so there is no “right answer”). I’m also pretty sure I will have many new puppycats snapping at my ankles excited to play.

Post script.
I have also discovered that there is a strange hybrid creature called PuppyCat Here is a weird animated video with puppycats

(image from

Love, law, war. [Writing]

It took a long time to write this.

It took an even longer time to live it. I remember that some day in that time of living it, I went out and bought three pairs of shoes in South Extension II market: there was a maroon pair, with vertigo-inducing high, block-y, heels that I wore, most likely, twice. I regretted buying the other two almost immediately after  did.  Since then I’ve learned, pleasantly, that I’m best in flat, hard-coloured shoes with just one distinctive detail.  The idea that I bought three pairs of shoes in a lunch break induced a weird head-rush. That this is how I would deal with eye-popping anger. It was either that or three cigarettes on a barsati in South Extension II.

We perfect robots

fritz_woman(Fritz Kahn’s Mechanical Woman)

“As computing machines gradually took over, mathematicians often measured its computing time in “girl-hours” and computing power in “kilo-girls.” The computer itself is a feminized item. The history of the computer is the history of unappreciated female labor hidden behind “technology,” a screen (a literal screen) erected by boy geniuses.”

When I sat down to my weekly crawl through The New Inquiry, I came across an article that was eerily in sync with the last  two weeks of reading Haraway and revisiting the relationship between women and technology. (I was also just thinking about starting to watch Buffy again.) One of my resolutions for 2015 is that I’m going to focus all my reading on non-fiction, except the bits that are about science/speculative fiction. So here are some discoveries stitched together, which resulted in this resolution.

So the New Inquiry article starts with the story of a Google employee who was fired for interacting with ‘a different class of workers’. These workers, mostly women of colour (unusual on Google’s mostly white, mostly male campus), had restricted access to buildings on campus, started work at 4am and left at 2pm. He tried to talk to them and he was eventually fired for it. They’re the women who scan the books in for Google Books.  I was instantly intrigued and had to read on. Trying to do independent research and projects outside of academia or any other institutional setting in India, and getting access to books and journals, is pretty much impossible without Google Books (not that existing institutions have very good access to books and journals for anything outside of the sciences and professions). The article goes on to talk about the different ways in which two passionate lovers, capitalism and the internet, have obscured the labour of the humans who make it all actually work, what they call ‘the human API’.

These ‘microworkers’ manage forums, scan books, turk for Amazon and do all things we believe the click of a button is doing. Interestingly, a lot of work that human scientists and programmers cannot program a computer to do are done by people: identifying the tone in a piece of writing; transcribing audio to text; facial recognition; capturing the layers in a photograph. For a short time when money was tight, my sister supplemented her income by ‘creating content’ for a website that supplied answers to a popular search query many of us have used: ‘the difference between except and accept’ or ‘the difference between effect and affect’.

A lot of this casual, invisibilised labour happens within a legal gray zone. Companies love it because they don’t have the same legal responsibilities for workers  they are ‘independent contractors’. : “Press a button and lunch is ready, flowers are sent out, laundry gets done, the house is cleaned. It’s like magic… Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is merely the most literal and obvious manifestation of this trend. The actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.”

((Another connection: the New School in New York has played host this past weekend to a conference called Digital Labour .))

Many of these mechanical human workers are women, and the TNI piece goes on to explore how a chasm has been created between women and technology, a chasm, one that calls on gender essentialisms like “women aren’t naturally inclined to work with tech”;or  that obscures the labour that women are constantly doing, from mining the coltan to making the micro-chips to programming the chips to digital janitor-ing online.

Haraway mentions this in the Cyborg Manifesto as Gordon’s ‘home work economy’:  “work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.”

Then last week in London, as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi programme ‘Days of Fear and Wonder‘, I listened to the entertaining and happily nerdy Sophie Mayer talk about cyborgs and science fiction cinema’s history of female robots and programmed women from Fritz Lang and Margaret Atwood to Joss Whedon and beyond.There were some really juicy new films to add to the 2015 list, like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Conceiving Ada’, Peter Wollen’s 1970 film Friendship’s Death, staring Tilda Swinton, about an alien that joins the PLO, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames ,the Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, to closer readings of pop culture favourites like Buffy, the Alien series, Bjork etc.

Starting with Maya Deren’s early work, Mayer talked about the recurring theme of women in early sci-fi as dolls, robots or statues, as mechanical objects,  reproduction/replication farms that have to be controlled. Later, there is a shift to  ‘hard-body’ warriors a la Sarah Connor, heedless Thelma-Louises who disrupt the patriarchal project and stick it to the system. But first not without  films like Demon Seed where an artificial intelligence tries to have sex with a woman and impregnate her. We will resist the twin evils  of God and the Father, the forces of family, religion, psychoanalysis that insist on telling us that we aren’t doing it right, what we lack, that our bodies hold us back, the boys are better at it. But first, we must run fast and far from rapacious artificial intelligences. Good grief.

“Though both are bound in a spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” is a way out and a way in; to think about how not to have a grand theory of everything, to accept that we are already-hybrid, already a synthesis of social taxonomies and personal aspirations, and also, as women and as workers, dominated by the industrialisation of the technologies we enjoy.

Can’t end any other way except with Bjork’s brilliant track (and video by Chris Cunningham featuring lesbian robots) All is full of love. And this final line from Haraway again: ” However, there is no ‘place’ for women in these networks, only geometries of difference and contradiction crucial to women’s cyborg identities. If we learn how to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions.”



New writing

I’m asking friends, peers and others to contribute new writing. Some themes include:

Shadowboxing: the struggle with language

How to write about violence / writing about violence

The minotaur in the maze : looking inside the law

The feminists go swimming: notes on living politics

On masculinities.

Watch this space! And let me know if you’d like to write.