Opening the Tower Gates: Philosophy’s New Relationship with Technology

guest post by Peter O’Meara ’19

A new age could be dawning for philosophy beyond the Ivory Tower. From A.I. to design to data, tech leaders express a desire to see philosophy incorporated into the developmental process for products and services (see for example articles like this, this, and this). Given the human connections many innovations seek to simulate, knowledge of ethics, for just one example, is coming to be appreciated by different types of companies. There are few roadmaps on how to translate the skills of digital native philosophy undergraduates into careers in technology that are in need of the skills developed by philosophy majors in their undergraduate education.

SXSW 2019, the annual ideas festival in Austin, saw a congregation of tech titans and start-ups, each vying to reinvent the relationship between humans and innovation. For example, the Google Home Mini was likened to a pebble, while some social networks were compared to a hearth, aiming to bring communities together. Such designs, chameleon in imitation, raise questions about impact on behavior and what it means to be human. “We should ask philosophically ‘what makes us human?’ ‘Can technology try to be human in that way?’ ‘What is this good experience we are trying to design?’” says Yihyun Lim, MIT Design Lab director and one of SXSW’s many speakers. “As we are developing tech, if we remember what the core value is, that can direct where tech will go in the future.” Philosophy grads can be shepherds on that journey.

A.I. is not exempt from similar considerations: in discussions from totalitarian code to autonomous vehicles to musical instruments, the need for ethics is embraced. Already government leaders are seeing the wielding of A.I. for deplorable ends, and it becomes clear that new voices are needed alongside programmers. Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, warns SXSW, “not all nations share our values, and the world authoritarian regimes compel engineers to create AI for repression.” On an ethical note, he adds “If you have a consequentialist, you care more about what you are emphasizing than what you are explaining. In autonomous cars, you are asking how many thousands of people will die? Why should explainability be the standard?” Ultimately, he calls for integration, declaring “We need to think of diversity in a broader context. Philosophers and engineers working together, working in teams.”

Data repeatedly demonstrates its capacity to harm as much as it helps with its unintended consequences. Facial recognition systems have been known to discriminate based on race, while surveillance data frequently ignores inferences. Josh Klein, CEO of H4X Industries LCC and SXSW speaker, argues that data can be used for good, but often isn’t due to human laziness. This is a bad excuse, he argues, and while change is difficult, “we ought to endeavor to improve data on people such that ethics are met, and business still thrive.” Klein further remarks “treating people like robots does not equal profit. If you get data on toothpaste wrong, toothpaste doesn’t have a bad day. If we don’t face biases, we don’t create large scale positive social change.”

While there is a desire by science and technology to incorporate philosophical rigor, a meaningful roadmap for integration doesn’t yet exist. While some, like Klein, have given isolated, concrete suggestions, there are few real, tangible initiatives. Jake Silberg and James Manyika of McKinsey & Company reiterate this priority for collaboration between tech and philosophy. In their piece “Tackling Bias in Artificial Intelligence (and in humans)”, bias in A.I. is described as an issue only addressable with a multidisciplinary approach. “Business leaders can also help support progress by making more data available to researchers and practitioners across organizations working on these issues, while being sensitive to privacy concerns and potential risks” they argue. “More progress will require interdisciplinary engagement, including ethicists, social scientists, and experts who best understand the nuances of each application area in the process.” Several potential routes undergraduates could take can promote this participation include: Universities could offer bachelor’s degrees with emphasis in certain areas of tech or philosophy of science. Internships with organizations and think tanks facilitating discussions across disciplines could be created as well. Philosophers working alongside programmers, insofar as both parties are involved in decision-making or influencing capacities, could also be a great way to implementation more integration. Panels focusing on empathy and bias, areas which philosophy is adept at reflecting on, could be held on a regular basis to evaluate the current codes and products.

Philosophy’s role in tech appears unquestionable, and the attitudes presented by the latter’s leaders are a welcome sign for those feeling trapped in the Ivory Tower or believing their degree has limited use.

Peter O’Meara holds a philosophy degree from the University of Puget Sound outside Seattle and has studied multiple coding languages. He can be reached via LinkedIn and at pcomeara@comcast.net.

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Philosopher Kate Manne to Deliver 2019 Brown and Haley Lectures

Originated in 1953, Brown and Haley became the first fully endowed lectureship in the history of the University of Puget Sound in 1981. The lectures are intended to make significant contributions to the understanding of urgent problems confronting society, emphasizing perspectives in the social sciences or humanities. During their two-day residency, the invited speaker not only delivers two public lectures, but also visits two classes and interacts with faculty and students outside of the classroom. In recent years, the committee has especially focused on bringing in emerging scholars whose work transcends disciplinary boundaries.

For 2019, we are very pleased to have philosopher Kate Manne, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, as the Brown and Haley lecturer. Manne will give two free public talks on September 18 and 19, at 7pm, in the Tahoma Room in Thomas Hall. Her first talk is titled “What is Misogyny? Concepts, Targets, and Triggers”, and her second talk is titled “Unassuming: On Epistemic Entitlement, Mansplaining, and Gaslighting”.

Manne’s work on misogyny has received international recognition. Her first book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, was chosen as one of the “books of the year” by Times Higher Education, Washington Post, and The Big Issue; and it recently won the 2019 PROSE Award for Excellence in Humanities. In addition to her academic work, she has published political and cultural commentary in The New York Times, Newsweek, Times Literary Supplement, and more. For her scholarship and influence, Dr. Manne has been recently recognized as one of Prospect Magazine’s Top 50 World Thinkers.

Congratulations 2019 Philosophy Graduates!

We will miss the impressive group of philosophy majors who graduated yesterday!  We got a chance to celebrate with some of them on Saturday.

We wish each of you all the very best as you move on to the next stage of your lives and are so very proud of your accomplishments during your time at Puget Sound.  Keep in touch and come visit us! 

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2019 Philosophy Graduates Bennett Barnes, Colleen Hanson, Sam Lilly, Sammy Jones.

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Philosophy faculty and graduating seniors at the Philosophy reception on Saturday, from left: Prof. Tiehen, Colleen Hanson, Sam Lilly, Prof. Protasi, Bennett Barnes, Sammy Jones, Prof. Beardsley, Prof. Tubert, Prof. Garrison.

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2019 graduates Colleen Hanson, Sam Lilly, Bennett Barnes, Sammy Jones.

 

Join the GQS & Philosophy Summer Book Club

This summer, the Gender & Queer Studies and Philosophy Book Club will be meeting to discuss Prof. Kate Manne’s work Down Girl. These meetings are open to all and lunch will be provided at every meeting. Contact nkranzdorf@pugetsound.edu for more information.

Kate Manne is an assistant professor of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. She will be guest lecturing from September 18-19, 2019 as part of the Brown and Haley lecture series.

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CFA: 2019 Ethics and Broader Considerations of Technology Conference (University of Nebraska–Lincoln)

University of Nebraska–Lincoln have sent out a call for abstracts for their 2019 Ethics and Broader Considerations of Technology Conference. Submissions should be on topics of ethics and technology. This conference is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. Prof. Tubert will be a featured speaker at this conference.

Submission Deadline: June 15, 2019
Conference Dates: October 31–November 2, 2019

Students are also invited to create a game about ethics and technology for the The Ethics and Technology Game Jam.

For more information about submission requirements, featured speakers, or other conference inquiries, visit the conference website.

2019 Fall Ethics and Technology conference

UPS Ethics Bowl Team Competes in First Ever Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW)

The Puget Sound Ethics Bowl team competed in the first ever Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) on April 14, 2019. The University of Puget Sound and the the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS) teams debated questions such as: Should we bring back species that have been driven to extinction? Are laws allowing terminally ill children to choose euthanasia morally defensible? Is China’s social credit system, which assigns a social credit score based on behavior, morally justified? Do wealthy nations owe a climate debt obligation toward less-wealthy nations? 

FEPPS describes their mission as being:

A rigorous college program for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender nonconforming people in Washington and creates pathways to higher education after students are released from prison. Our goals are to increase FEPPS students’ economic and personal empowerment, contribute to family stability and reduce recidivism through college education.

The event was sponsored by Freedom Education Project Puget Sound and the University of Washington, Philosophy Department.

This event was also made possible by Paul Tubig, a Philosophy PhD candidate at University of Washington. In addition to coaching the FEPPS team, Paul established ethics bowl at WCCW and organized the event.

Visit the FEPPS Facebook page to read more about the event.

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Left table: FEPPS ethics bowl team

Middle table: Puget Sound Ethics Bowl team

Right table: Judges and moderator

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Paul Tubig

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Puget Sound Students Competed in 2019 National Bioethics Bowl

On April 5–6, students on the Puget Sound Ethics Bowl and their coach, Prof. Tubert, traveled to Mobile, AL to compete in the National Bioethics Bowl at University of South Alabama.

The National Bioethics Bowl is a college-level collaborative presentation and debate about pressing ethical issues in biomedicine and technology. Months prior to the competition, each team receives a case packet containing 15 cases about bioethical dilemmas. Each team conducts research relevant to the individual cases and defend a position using ethical reasoning and argumentation. The bowl entails several rounds of debate. In each round, two teams are given time to present their position and argument for a given case they prepared. Following each presentation, teams have the opportunity to hear and respond to replies from the opposing team. Finally, the teams engage in a Q&A session with judges who included professionals in healthcare, government, and philosophy.

Some of the cases the Puget Sound team presented on were about unrepresented patients, CRISPR babies, and therapeutic misconception.

Students reflected on the value of participating in this bowl:

Liam Grantham ’20: “Debating our positions against another team made us stronger public speakers and improved our ability to act professionally (even when we strongly believe our opponents’ position is flawed)…I would definitely recommend the ethics bowl club to other people who are genuinely interested in ethics as much as we are. It sometimes takes a lot to come to a consensus on some of the cases we were given, but if you are passionate about ethics (doing the right thing), then it is absolutely worth it.” 

Colleen Hanson ’19: “Bioethics bowl is … a necessary space to discuss pressing ethical dilemmas in medicine and biotechnology. There will always be a need for people to critically reflect and make decisions on these issues. Bioethics bowl integrates students and experts from various disciplines and backgrounds, providing a robust and diverse pool of perspectives. As such, I think bioethics bowl is an essential activity not only in the types of skills it develops in students, but in the purpose it serves for the greater bioethics field.”

Simone Moore ’20: “…this experience not only helped us strengthen our rhetorical skills, but challenged us to interrogate and apply the foundational philosophical information that we have gathered through our time at UPS thus far. I feel fortunate that I was able to participate in an event such as this, and I hope that I will be able to do it again…”

Holden Chen ’20: The event was certainly competitive, but at the same time, it was one that prompted a deliberative process that goes beyond itself. We now have familiarity with these timely ethical issues and have acquired the skills and knowledge to develop strong positions, but it doesn’t just stop there for us. The very fact that we were challenged at the competition shows that there’s always more to engage with and consider. The ethical discussions don’t stop, and we as ethicist of the now and of the future have come away from the experience with more appreciation for the process.”

August Malueg ’20: “Ethics bowl has helped me develop strong public speaking skills and has made me more confident in my ability to relate my thoughts to others… In Mobile I had the opportunity to meet students from various universities that traveled to the competition (such as Depauw and Loyola Chicago), as well as locals, who were overwhelmingly hospitable and welcoming. I think it is important to keep ethics bowl active at the university and to continue offering students the chance to travel to compete because it not only helps them in the professional and social sense, but also because they have the opportunity to continue to have novel experiences abroad.” 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_19aTop: Holden Chen ’20, Simone Moore ’20, Professor Ariela Tubert, August Malueg ’20, Liam Grantham ’20 / Bottom: Colleen Hanson ’19

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