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News: April/May 2022

Ukrainian philosopher’s 300th birthday • AI shows increasing ethical problems • Qubit pioneer David Deutsch wins prize — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Philosopher on Hunger Strike

In August of last year, a number of prominent thinkers in Belarus were arrested, among them the philosopher Uladzimir Mazkewitsch and the sociologist Tatjana Wadalaschskaja. They had founded the ‘Flying University’ in Minsk, where philosophers, historians and other academics working within the humanities offered courses for the general public in Belarusian and Russian. Their arrests were part of a government crackdown taken against the few independent education providers in the country. Organisations such as the Flying University became rare bastions of free thought in the wake of the 2020 elections, and became a model for citizens to come together in their own free associations. After more than half a year in prison, Mazkewitsch is still on remand, not having been formally charged with any offence. In an attempt to force the authorities to set a date for a trial and to convert his prison time leading up to it into house arrest, Mazkewitsch went on hunger strike earlier this year. Following assurances that his case would be processed with greater urgency, Mazkewitsch has, for now, broken off his hunger strike.

AI Ethics Problems Getting Worse

AI in its diverse manifestations continues to be an exciting area of research bringing about real developments in technology and attracting massive funding from wealthy investors. However, while the technology is rapidly improving, at least in certain respects, such as the trainability of AI units, it is lagging behind in others. Recent language models, more sophisticated than their predecessors, surprisingly show greater bias and generate more toxic text than the earlier, more basic models. Such are the findings of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI in a recent report. “This year’s report shows that AI systems are starting to be deployed widely into the economy, but at the same time they are being deployed, the ethical issues associated with AI are becoming magnified,” the coauthors of the report comment. Yet they warn: “Larger and more complex and capable AI systems can generally do better on a broad range of tasks while also displaying a greater potential for ethical concerns, researchers and practitioners are reckoning with [the] real-world harms, [including] commercial facial recognition systems that discriminate on race, resume screening systems that discriminate on gender, and AI-powered clinical health tools that are biased along socioeconomic and racial lines … As startups and established companies race to make language models broadly available through platforms and APIs, it becomes critical to understand how the shortcomings of these models will affect safe deployment.”

Hryhoriy Birthday

Hryhoriy Skovorod
Hryhoriy Skovorod

This year marks the 300th birthday of Hryhoriy Skovoroda. The Ukrainian Enlightenment philosopher (also known as Gregory Skovoroda) lived from 1722 to 1794. This highly educated and original thinker wrote poetry, dialogues, fables and aphorisms in Church Slavic, Ukrainian and Russian, as well as quoting in Greek and Latin. Having spent much of his life as a teacher of poetics, ethics and other disciplines, as well as a notable composer, he spent his later years as an ascetic hermit, wandering Sloboda Ukraine, devoting himself to what he considered the task of philosophy: the search for truth. When his death neared, he turned up at a friend’s house in a village near Kharkiv, announcing that he had “come to stay permanently.” He then dug his own grave nearby and, on the completion of this last task, died. The village, renamed Skovorodinovka in 1922 in his honour, is now the site of a small museum dedicated to his work. He chose this epitaph for his grave: “The world tried to capture me, but didn’t succeed.”

David Deutsch Wins Newton Prize

The Isaac Newton Medal and Prize, given each year by the Institute of Physics, was awarded to the Oxford quantum physicist Professor David Deutsch in 2021. This was to recognise Deutsch for “founding the discipline named quantum computation and establishing quantum computation’s fundamental idea, now known as the ‘qubit’ or quantum bit.” Deutsch’s approach has a metaphysical dimension as well as a practical aspect. Back in 2000 when he was interviewed by Filiz Peach for Philosophy Now Issue 30, he said that the easiest way to understand quantum computing is to assume that we live in a multiverse consisting of many parallel universes, with weak interactions or interferences taking place between particles in neighbouring universes.

Ethics for Drone Enthusiasts

France, Germany, Italy and Spain, acting through the Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation, recently signed a contract with Airbus and other companies for a project called Eurodrone. The project aims to develop unmanned aerial combat systems – like drones, but the size of small aircraft, with bombs and cameras. Mike Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence & Space, says that the signature “kicks-off the development of one of the most ambitious European defence programmes.” But the project is not without controversy and has brought a renewed focus on the moral issues around the use of military drones. There are demands that the project must not breach EU values. The intended uses of the drones include spying and surveillance (raising privacy concerns), as well as what is known in industry circles as “blowing shit up”, so a number of rights and laws may be affected. Critics fall into two camps: those who unequivocally oppose any use of military drones and those who believe their use can only be condoned under strictly limited conditions.

Ethics for Photographers

Interested in photography, eh? What could be the harm in that? Well, a campaign called the Photography Ethics Centre has now called on all photographers to publish a statement of ethics on their websites. PEC founder Savannah Dodd explains that photographers make ethical decisions every time they take a photograph, whether or not they are aware of it: “Ethics shapes our decisions around what we photograph, how we photograph it, how we edit that photograph, where we publish a photograph, and how we caption it.”

Ethics for Engineers

A new report recommends that ethical considerations should become embedded in engineering practice in the same way as health and safety. “Engineers act in the service of society, making decisions that affect everyone, from small-scale technical choices to major strategic decisions that can affect the lives of millions and even the future of our planet. We want to make sure that ethical practice is at the heart of all these decisions,” said Professor David Bogle, chair of the Engineering Ethics Reference Group. His group’s report suggests instituting the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath for engineers: “Ever-growing expectations of society” and constant technological advances mean engineers must “continually evaluate how ethical behaviours need to improve and evolve.” Engineers must negotiate the tensions between profitability, sustainability and safety.

Ethics for Ethicists

A new organisation invented just now has recommended that ethicists “should reflect carefully” before trying to implement codes of practice into every human activity. “Perhaps ethicists need a code of practice about the real world application of ethics?” said Prof. Madeupname.

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