Kate Crawford and the virtues of justice, courage and humility

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.

Kate CrawfordFrom: https://twitter.com/katecrawford

Kate Crawford embodies the virtues of humility, justice and courage. 

Kate Crawford is a researcher, academic and author who has spent the last decade studying the social implications of data systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence. She is a Distinguished Research Professor at New York University, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research New York, and a Visiting Professor at the MIT Media Lab. Her recent publications address data bias and fairness, social impacts of artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and due process, and algorithmic accountability and transparency.

Kate is the co-founder and co-director of the AI Now Research Institute: “a new interdisciplinary research center dedicated to studying the social implications of artificial intelligence–with a focus on four themes: Bias and inclusion; Labour and automation; Rights and liberties; Safety and civil infrastructure.

Crawford draws attention to the ethical and political dimensions of the usage of algorithms and AI. In one of her presentations (below), she critiques the all-too-common attitude of engineers to not-engage in ethics (questions related to values and human dignity) or politics (questions related to power and the distribution of power)–they tend to say “I’m just an engineer“:

Crawford embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor describes as a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128). Crawford is concerned about the societal, ethical and political implications of AI and other technologies.

Furthermore, she embodies the technomoral virtue of courage, which Vallor describes as “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131). Crawford combines an intelligent concern with intelligent action, especially in her founding of the AI Now Research Institute.

Moreover, she embodies the technomoral virtue of humility, which Vallor describes as “a renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment” (2016, p. 126-7). Crawford questions current misplaced optimism about AI and urges us to think critically.


Possibly, you find that Kate Crawford 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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Bill Gates and the virtues of justice, empathy and magnanimity

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.

From: news.gsu.edu

Bill Gates founded Microsoft (in 1975) and became extremely rich. Over the years, Microsoft has been criticized for its business practices: problems with the software’s ease-of-use, robustness and security, as well as monopolist strategies, such as vendor lock-in (where hardware manufacturers have no choice other than buy Microsoft software).

Together with his wife Melinda, he established (in 2000) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization which aims to improve healthcare and reduce extreme poverty globally, and to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology in the US. Gates calls this “Catalytic Philanthropy: Innovating Where Markets Won’t and Governments Can’t“. Gates is currently working full-time for this foundation and for other charitable organizations, such as the Giving Pledge, which he founded together with Warren Buffet, “a campaign to encourage wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes”.

In this TED Talk Bill and Melinda reflect on their work in the Foundation: “Why giving away our wealth has been the most satisfying thing we’ve done

Their plans for the Foundation emerged as early as 1993, a couple of months before their marriage, while traveling in Africa, when they were struck by the poverty they saw.

In his role of philanthropist, Gates embodies the technomoral virtues of justice, perspective and magnanimity.

Gates exemplifies the technomoral virtue of justice–which Vallor defines as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” (2016, p. 128). The Foundation aims, globally, to combat extreme poverty, to promote health, e.g., by investing in the development of new, better and affordable medicines and sanitation systems, and to develop sustainable and affordable energy.

Furthermore, Gates exemplifies the technomoral virtue of empathy–which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133). For example, he realized that his fine education has enabled him to have the career and life he has had. This was one of the motives for him to improve educational opportunities in the US.

Moreover, it can be argued that Gates embodies the technomoral virtue of magnanimity–which, according to Vallor refers to moral ambition and moral leadership (2016, p. 152). Interestingly, Gates not only donates his own wealth (which he refers to as “give back”); he encourages other billionaires to also donate their wealth–which can be recognized as moral leadership.


Possibly, you find that Bill Gates 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

Safiya Umoja Noble and the virtues of justice and perspective

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.

From: safiyanoble.com

Safiya Umoja Noble embodies the technomoral virtues of justice and perspective.

Noble works as an assistant professor at Annenberg School of Communication of the University of Southern California. “She is a partner in Stratelligence, a firm that specializes in research on information and data science challenges, and is a co-founder of the Information Ethics & Equity Institute, which provides training for organizations committed to transforming their information management practices toward more just, ethical, and equitable outcomes.”

She is known for her book “Algorithms of Oppression“, in which she discusses various types of discrimination that happen in search services like Google. See the auto-complete function on the book’s front cover (below).

One day in the fall of 2010, she searched for interesting things for her stepdaughter and nieces, using the keywords “black girls”, only to find HotBlackPussy.com as the first hit. “Hit indeed” (Noble, 2018, p.3). This motivated her to embark on an extensive study of the ways in which algorithms “reinforce oppressive social relationships and enact new modes of racial profiling” (p.1).

Her book contains numerous shocking examples of search results, ranging from Google’s automatic image recognition system that tagged a picture of two black teenagers as ‘gorillas’ (in July 2015; very likely the result of training the algorithm with mainly white people’s faces–this has, by the way, not really been fixed; it looks like Google took a shortcut and ‘simply’ deleted words like ‘gorilla’, ‘chimp’, ‘chimpanzee’ and ‘monkey’) to a search in Google Maps for ‘N*gga House’, during Barack Obama’s presidency, that leads to the White House (p. 6). And from Google returning images of men, mostly white, when searching for ‘doctor’; images of women, mostly white, when searching for ‘nurse’; images of white women when looking for ‘professional hairstyles for work’; and images of black woman when looking for ‘unprofessional hairstyles for work (pp. 82-84); etc.

Noble embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor described as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128). Noble draws attention to the ways in which search engines, which we regard as ‘objective’, are in fact not ‘objective’ at all, but very often skewed, biased, prejudiced–or, simply put: unjust. With a background in Library & Information Science she understands the importance of accessible and truthful information as a condition for democracy and justice.

Furthermore, Noble embodies the technomoral virtue of perspective, which Vallor described as “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). The results from an online search engine may seem trivial. Does it really matter whether we see pictures of black women (with ‘unprofessional hair styles’) or white women (with ‘professional hair styles’), one might ask. Yes, this does matter, visual communication shapes people’s thoughts and feelings. Noble draws attention to the ways in which online search results can propagate existing biases and injustices–or how we can fix these, to combat bias and injustice.


Possibly, you find that Safiya Umoja Noble 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

Edward Snowden and the virtues of courage, magnanimity, justice and civility

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.

From: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2803762/images/o-EDWARD-SNOWDEN-facebook.jpg

Edward Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government. In 2013 he copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). He revealed numerous surveillance programs of the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecom operators and European governments.

“A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.”

Despite the controversy, I believe that Snowden embodies the technomoral virtues of courage and magnanimity.

In a TED Talk (above), Snowden reflects: “I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what is right. And I am not going to stop my work in the public interest, just to benefit myself”. He saw the dangers of mass surveillance and acted bravely, for the common good, and paid a high personal price–he had to flee the US and has been living in exile since. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131).

Furthermore, Snowden exemplifies moral ambition and leadership; he acted from the conviction that mass surveillance needs to be checked and balanced with other values, such as privacy and transparency. This resonates with Vallor’s definition of magnanimity as a technomoral virtue that “enables and encourages moral ambition and moral leadership, two things sorely lacking in our contemporary technomoral milieu.”

Moreover, Snowden promotes the virtues of justice and civility.

In the same TED Talk (above) Snowden states: “We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our library to have security”. He promotes finding better balances between security and privacy in the work of agencies like the NSA. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of justice: a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).

Finally, when asked to reflect on his role, in the same TED Talk (above), Snowden replies that he sees himself primarily as a citizen–a citizen concerned with values like privacy and transparency. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of civility: “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action” (2016, p. 141).


Possibly, you find that Edward Snowden Aimee van 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

Aimee van Wynsberghe and the virtues of care, self-control 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 Aimee) van Wynsberghe

From: https://www.itweb.co.za/content/KWEBb7yalR17mRjO

Aimee van Wynsberghe has been working in ICT and robotics since 2004. She began her career as part of a research team investigating the network variables related to surgical robots. She works as Assistant Professor in Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology. She is co-founder president of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. The Foundation’s mission “is to shape a future of responsible robotics design, development, use, regulation, and implementation”.

She was recently (June 2018) appointed as one of 52 experts for the European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence.

Aimee van Wynsberghe promotes the technomoral virtues of care, self-control and justice.

Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of care–which Vallor defines asa skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (2016, p. 138)–on multiple levels: on the application level, she focuses on the deployment of robots in health care contexts; on the design level, she advocates carefully considering ethical issues in the designing of robots; and on the level of (meta) ethics, she proposes ethics of care, an approach in ethics that starts with relationships and interdependencies between people.

Furthermore, Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of self-control–which Vallor defines asan exemplary ability … to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (2016, p. 124)–e.g. in her work in the Foundation, where she argues that: “Robots are tools with no moral intelligence, which means it’s up to us – the humans behind the robots – to be accountable for the ethical developments that necessarily come with technological innovation.” So we, designers and developers, need to cultivate self-control.

Moreover, Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of justice, which Vallor defines as a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128)–e.g., when she argues that: “Addressing ethical issues in robotics means proactively taking stock of the impact these innovations will have on societal values like safety, security, privacy, and well-being, rather than trying to contain the effects of robots after their introduction into society.” She advocates proactively upholding and defending values that are needed in a just society.


Possibly, you find that Aimee van Wynsberghe 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

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

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