Leah GoviaMA candidate | Public Issues Anthropology

For her MA in Public Issues Anthropology, Leah Govia is studying an unconventional group of humans: artificial intelligence experts.

In May, Leah will fly down to Phoenix, Arizona to attend the Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies at Arizona State. There, she’ll observe sessions and interview AI professionals about the extent to which they engage with ethics in their work as AI developers, researchers or educators. This data will help her answer questions about the ways ethics of AI gets developed and disseminated — through design labs, classrooms and conferences.

There are two significant areas of ethical study in AI. Roboethics, Leah explains, is the ethics of technology design — whether and how to use AI in weaponry, for example. Machine ethics, on the other hand, deals with the morality programmed into artificial intelligence: what kind of language Siri is willing to use, for instance.

And both machine ethics and roboethics, Leah points out, are very public issues, with implications for everyone. Ethical considerations, she says, should be a central component of the design of AI. “If we’re going to give a machine ethics, whose ethics will we give them?” she asks.“We should be making these things beneficial to all of us. Not just to certain groups of people that developers are familiar with.”

Leah, who “always loved science fiction” and recently received a SSHRC grant to support her research, notes that anthropology can offer a unique perspective on questions of ethics for a rapidly transforming area such as artificial intelligence. “I think that with anthropology, we have an understanding of just how dynamic every phenomenon of life is. We’re good at looking at change and process,”  she says.

When asked whether she thinks her questions might instigate some change by inspiring AI researchers to think more about ethics, Leah laughs. “That might be my intention a bit, yeah.” She says she’s especially interested in interviewing graduate students: “They’re where the industry is going.”

For her own future, Leah is considering continuing on to a PhD, but she’s also intrigued by the relatively new and expanding field of user experience design. “I’d like to bring this work to industry,” she says. “This degree is geared toward really making an impact, trying to make a difference.”