Luciano Floridi and the virtues of honesty, perspective, flexibility and justice

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Luciano Floridi

From: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/luciano-floridi/

Luciano Floridi embodies the technomoral virtues of honesty, perspective, flexibility and justice.

Luciano Floridi is currently Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, at the University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, and holds several other academic positions. He was originally educated as a historian of philosophy; he then became interested in analytic philosophy (MA) and in epistemology and philosophy of logic (MPhil and PhD). He contributed greatly to the Philosophy of Information (and Technology), and Information (and Computer and Digital) Ethics, e.g., in his recent books: “Philosophy of Information” (2011), “The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics” (editor) (2010), “Information: A Very Short Introduction” (2010), “The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality” (2014), and “The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information” (2016).

Moreover, Floridi has been deeply engaged with initiatives on the socio-ethical value and implications of digital technologies and their applications; nationally (e.g., in the UK, with the House of Lords, the Cabinet Office, and the Information Commissioner’s Office),  internationally (e.g., member of the EU’s Ethics Advisory Group on Ethical Dimensions of Data Protection), and with corporations (e.g., member of Google Advisory Board on “the right to be forgotten”). He is one of the members of the recently established High Level Group of Artificial Intelligence.

The Onlife Manifesto

In the context of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research program, he was editor of the “Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era“. The authors of this Manifesto argue that “ICTs are not mere tools but rather environmental forces that are increasingly affecting: 1. our self-conception (who we are); 2. our mutual interactions (how we socialise); and 3. our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and 4. our interactions with reality (our agency).” Moreover, they argue that this impact of ICTs is “due to at least four major transformations: a. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; b. the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; c. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and d. the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks.”

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor floridi why ai is both logically possible and utterly implausible

From: https://aeon.co/essays/true-ai-is-both-logically-possible-and-utterly-implausible 

Floridi also contributed to the debate on Artificial Intelligence. In response to alarmist messages by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Floridi wrote that “True AI is not logically impossible, but it is utterly implausible” (Should we be afraid of AI?). Instead of being overly optimistic/utopian or overly pessimist/dystopian, he proposes to be realistic about AI and use it for the greater good and benefits of society: “We should make AI environment-friendly [and] human-friendly […] We should make AI’s predictive power work for freedom and autonomy […] And finally, we should make AI make us more human.”

In his search for scientific rigour and his efforts to generate an overall vision on the role of ICTs, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtue of honesty and perspective, which Vallor defines as, respectively, “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technomoral contexts(2016, p. 122), and a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). 

In his engagement with society and collaborations with policy makers and corporatons, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtues of flexibility and justice, which Vallor defines as, respectively, a “reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145), and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

PS: Presentation ‘AI as a force for good’ at the World Summit AI 2018, Amsterdam:


Possibly, you find that Luciano Floridi embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Cathy O’Neil and the virtues of honesty, justice, humility and courage

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

cathy-oneil-125-1000px

From: https://mathbabe.org/contact/

Cathy O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice, and of humility and courage. 

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at MIT, and a professor at Barnard College […] She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis […]. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene […]. She wrote “Doing Data Science” in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy“, and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

WeaponsMath r4-6-06.jpg

In this book, she provides a broad range of examples of the harms that algorithms can do–intentionally or unintentionally. Very often, poor people suffer the hardest: “Promising efficiency and fairness, [these algorithms] distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy” (p. 199). She coined the term Weapons of Math Destruction, to refer to algorithms with the following characteristics: their outcomes have large effects on people’s lives and society; they work invisible and are inaccessible for scrutiny or critique; their usage tends to spread like wildfire, e.g., affecting an entire industry; and they lack proper feedback loops and checks, so that they can all too easily derail.

Existing unfairness and injustice–which, in the US, often concur with discrimination based on race, resulting in poverty and lack of opportunities–are propagated through algorithms: “Big Data codify the past.” (p. 204) […] She argues that “we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 207).

  • Her TED Talk: “The era of blind faith in big data must end

O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice. She unveils the lies surrounding algorithms and their unwarranted promises, in order to critique the injustice and unfairness they propagate and exacerbate. For her, honesty, about what math can do, and cannot do, and advocating and striving for justice go hand in hand.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of honesty as “respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately” (2016, p. 122), and justice as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of … technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how … technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

In addition, O’Neil embodies the virtues of humility and courage. Humility because she knows very well what math can do, and cannot do. She critiques many widespread practices: using invalid proxies, e.g., using people’s financial credit scores to assess risks related to driving a car and setting a price for car insurance; the lack of feedback loops, which are critical for putting a faulty algorithm, e.g., one that effectively creates random outputs, back on track; and focusing on those variables that can be quantified and data which are easily available, instead of deciding that algorithms make no sense, e.g., because the desired results are qualitative or hard to put into numbers. Moreover, she embodies courage in that she experiences both fear and hope in intelligent ways: she understands the dangers of algorithms, and she has hope that we can “disarm (p. 199) and “dismantle” (p. 202) these Weapons of Math Destruction.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of humility asa recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), and courage as a “disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).


Possibly, you find that Cathy O’Neill embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl