Talking ‘tech’ on The World This Weekend

At the start of 2017, I ventured through the snow to KGNU, Boulder’s community radio station, to record an interview with Mark Mardell for The World This Weekend on the BBC.

They edited out my citation for the quote at the start, which is a little embarrassing. I took it from this tweet:

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Podcast on self-driving cars

During a visit to the wonderful people at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation and Society, Andrew Maynard and Heather Ross invited me into the podcast booth to talk about self-driving cars.

This connects to a piece on the Guardian Political Science blog

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Frankenstein podcast, featuring Langdon Winner

I made this podcast during a recent meeting called ‘Frankenstein’s Shadow‘, which took place at the same time (200 years on) and place (pretty much) as Mary Shelley began writing her great novel. The bulk of the podcast is a talk given by Langdon Winner, the philosopher of technology, in which he revisits his great book, Autonomous Technology, 40 years on.

My aim is to do more of these – a series of Responsible Innovation podcasts. Watch (or listen to) this space.

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Acknowledging AI’s dark side

This is the text of a recent letter published in Science, for those who can’t get behind the paywall
Science 4 September 2015:
Vol. 349 no. 6252 p. 1064
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6252.1064-c

The 17 July special section on Artificial Intelligence (AI) (p. 248), although replete with solid information and ethical concern, was biased toward optimism about the technology.

The articles concentrated on the roles that the military and government play in “advancing” AI, but did not include the opinions of any political scientists or technology policy scholars trained to think about the unintended (and negative) consequences of governmental steering of technology. The interview with Stuart Russell touches on these concerns (“Fears of an AI pioneer,” J. Bohannon, News, p. 252), but as a computer scientist, his solutions focus on improved training. Yet even the best training will not protect against market or military incentives to stay ahead of competitors.

Likewise double-edged was M. I. Jordan and T. M. Mitchell’s desire “that society begin now to consider how to maximize” the benefits of AI as a transformative technology (“Machine learning: Trends, perspectives, and prospects,” Reviews, p. 255). Given the grievous shortcomings of national governance and the even weaker capacities of the international system, it is dangerous to invest heavily in AI without political processes in place that allow those who support and oppose the technology to engage in a fair debate.

The section implied that we are all engaged in a common endeavor, when in fact AI is dominated by a relative handful of mostly male, mostly white and east Asian, mostly young, mostly affluent, highly educated technoscientists and entrepreneurs and their affluent customers. A majority of humanity is on the outside looking in, and it is past time for those working on AI to be frank about it.

The rhetoric was also loaded with positive terms. AI presents a risk of real harm, and any serious analysis of its potential future would do well to unflinchingly acknowledge that fact.

The question posed in the collection’s introduction—“How will we ensure that the rise of the machines is entirely under human control?” (“Rise of the machines,” J. Stajic et al., p. 248)—is the wrong question to ask. There are no institutions adequate to “ensure” it. There are no procedures by which all humans can take part in the decision process. The more important question is this: Should we slow the pace of AI research and applications until a majority of people, representing the world’s diversity, can play a meaningful role in the deliberations? Until that question is part of the debate, there is no debate worth having.

  1. Christelle Didier1,
  2. Weiwen Duan2,
  3. Jean-Pierre Dupuy3,
  4. David H. Guston4,
  5. Yongmou Liu5,
  6. José Antonio López Cerezo6,
  7. Diane Michelfelder7,
  8. Carl Mitcham8,
  9. Daniel Sarewitz9,
  10. Jack Stilgoe10,
  11. Andrew Stirling11,
  12. Shannon Vallor12,
  13. Guoyu Wang13,
  14. James Wilsdon11,
  15. Edward J. Woodhouse14,*

  1. 1Lille University, Education, Lille, 59653, France.

  2. 2Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, 100732, China.

  3. 3Department of Philosophy, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, 75005, France.

  4. 4School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-5603, USA.

  5. 5Department of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, Beijing, 100872, China.

  6. 6Department of Philosophy, University of Oviedo, Oviedo, Asturias, 33003, Spain.

  7. 7Department of Philosophy, Macalester College, Saint Paul, MN 55105, USA.

  8. 8Liberal Arts and International Studies, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO 80401, USA.

  9. 9Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University, Washington, DC 20009, USA.

  10. 10Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, London, WC1E 6BT, UK.

  11. 11Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9SL, UK.

  12. 12Department of Philosophy, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053, USA.

  13. 13Department of Philosophy, Dalian University of Technology, Dalian, 116024, China.

  14. 14Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180, USA.
  1. *Corresponding author. E-mail:
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A tale of two trials

This story is, I think, an interesting example of Responsible Research and Innovation in action. It is a story of an institute and its researchers learning from controversy and from their own experiments in public dialogue. 

In the summer of 2012, a group of polite protesters assembled at Rothamsted Research, north of London, for what turned out to be an extremely polite protest. Earlier that year, a group had threatened to destroy a young crop of experimental wheat, genetically modified with the aim of repelling aphids. Rothamsted had, to their credit, seen the planting of this crop not as an experiment to be hidden from public view (even though they are legally bound to reveal its location and timing), but rather an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the pros and cons of genetic modification as a tool to help improve food security.

Rothamsted were keen to begin a formal public dialogue process focussed on the trial. But, as I and others argued at the time, to do so would have been disingenuous given that there was, understandably, no intention of changing direction or pulling up the crop. Instead, Rothamsted, in conversation with Sciencewise, sensibly chose a strategic, forward-looking dialogue exercise centred on the building of some principles for engagement with industry (a key condensation point for public concerns about GM crops). The exercise and its report informed a new approach, giving the institution and its researchers new confidence in public discussions about contentious agricultural research.

At the same time, Rothamsted found a new use for their high-security test field (the original GM wheat trial cost less than a million pounds, but security around the experiment cost more than two million). In the Spring of 2014, a crop of Camelina that had been modified to produce Omega-3 fatty acids for nutritional purposes, was planted. As with the GM wheat trial two summers earlier, approval had been granted by the UK’s Department for Food and Environmental Affairs, but this time the institute had decided to go public before the crop was in the ground. Rothamsted sent out a public consultation and invited various stakeholders, including local organic farmers and beekeepers, along to meetings the moment the application to run the trial was made. A concern from the beekeepers about the possible spread of pollen meant that Rothamsted went beyond the demands of regulators to put a net over the crop during its pollination.

This trial itself took place in the glare of public scrutiny. The BBC filmed the sowing, the flowering and the harvesting of the plant. This time around, however, there was relatively little antagonism. In summer this year, Rothamsted published the results of the wheat trial. As with many experiments, the results were negative. The crop didn’t repel its pests as hoped. Unusually for a negative result, the paper received huge coverage and allowed Rothamsted to communicate the message that not only were they doing genuine frontier research, but also that they were doing so in public, in the open.

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New Paper: Geoengineering as collective experimentation

20219935I’ve just published a paper in the journal of Science and Engineering Ethics which gives a summary of one of the ideas in the book – technology as a social experiment – and develops it to discuss how we might think about the politics of conducting experiments in controversial areas of science. The paper began life at a fascinating conference hosted by a Ibo van de Poel, a philosopher in Delft running a large project looking at a range of technologies-as-experiments.

The paper is Open Access and it’s available here.


Geoengineering is defined as the ‘deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of reducing global warming’. The technological proposals for doing this are highly speculative. Research is at an early stage, but there is a strong consensus that technologies would, if realisable, have profound and surprising ramifications. Geoengineering would seem to be an archetype of technology as social experiment, blurring lines that separate research from deployment and scientific knowledge from technological artefacts. Looking into the experimental systems of geoengineering, we can see the negotiation of what is known and unknown. The paper argues that, in renegotiating such systems, we can approach a new mode of governance—collective experimentation. This has important ramifications not just for how we imagine future geoengineering technologies, but also for how we govern geoengineering experiments currently under discussion.

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Why so quiet?

This blog has entered a fallow period. I have migrated my blog writing to two other places. The first is the Guardian Political Science blog, which has been going better than I and the other editors feared, given how niche debates about science policy can be.

The second place is the blog of my new book, Experiment Earth. This book organises some of the ideas I have drafted here and goes deeper into the case study of geoengineering. I would, of course, love to know what readers think.

I may resuscitate this blog in due course but, for now, don’t expect much…

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