Mission accepted: my doctoral research topic on the development of dignity-centered AI in 5 points to know | by Lorenn Ruster | Jul 2022

My doctoral research objective. From Lorenn Ruster’s Dissertation Proposal Review Presentation, June 2022.

This week marks 1 year since I started my PhD at the Australian National University’s School of Cybernetics. It’s been an amazing adventure so far.

A lot of people wonder what I’m actually doing. What does a first-year doctoral student actually do (at least in Australia)?

Essentially, we determine where to focus and why. And we present a proposal on what we are going to do for the rest of the time. I did this a few weeks ago and wanted to share a bit of where my research is at, why it matters, why you should care, and share some ways you might be able to help!

My research subject (like most doctors) is a bit of a mouthful:

investigate the leverage points that enable and thwart the development of dignity-centric artificial intelligence in entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Here is what you need to know in 5 points.

(Spoiler alert: if you’re more of a video type, you can scroll to the end for a 12-minute version of my thesis proposal presentation)

1. Entrepreneurs are a core group of humans who shape our technologies and therefore our future, but are understudied and underserved.

Humans shape technologies and technologies, in turn, shape humans; this is called an interactional position. Entrepreneurs who envision, design and build artificial intelligence (AI)-based systems have the power to shape our collective future. Their values, consciously or unconsciously, guide decision-making. And the ecosystem – societal, technological, environmental – in which entrepreneurs operate shapes their values.

Overview of the international position. Excerpt from Lorenn Ruster’s Doctoral Consortium presentation at iconference, 2022

All AI integrates values, consciously or not. And we, as humans, have the power to shape our future through the design and implementation of technology. The field of AI ethics helps technology designers and developers make informed decisions about which values ​​to put at the center. Yet it’s not particularly suited to entrepreneurial contexts (often assuming big business or government agendas and resources!) and it doesn’t usually help to do so in practice. It is hoped that this work will generate new insight into what dignity-centered AI development can look like and make an important contribution to the practical implementation of AI ethics, particularly in contexts entrepreneurial.

2. It is important to center dignity in the development of artificial intelligence if we hope to develop technologies that fight against inequalities

There are many examples of AI systems that discriminate, disenfranchise and disempower humans; however, there is also immense potential for using AI in ways that empower and help change systems of inequality, without entrenching them further. When I was a Global Fellow with Acumen in 2015/2016, we talked a lot about the opposite of poverty (in every sense of the word) and dignity (read more in Acumen’s manifesto here). This research postulates that if technologies must fight against inequalities, entrepreneurial ecosystems must value dignity.

There are many ways to think about dignity. Some initial thoughts are captured in this white paper, published in conjunction with the Center for Public Impact.

Preliminary Views on Dignity as an Ecosystem. Excerpt from Ruster & Snow (2021, p.9)

An interdisciplinary review of the concepts of dignity will constitute the first part of my research. Stay tuned for more soon!

3. It’s applied research, infused with cybernetic insights

This research is applied. In academic terms, this is called “intervention research”. As a researcher, I don’t passively observe, I am actively part of the system, intervening with ideas and patterns within it, testing and updating them over time.

I will use a variety of methods (also called mixed methods). Methods are likely to include a combination of:

  • Interviews
  • Workshops
  • A survey

It is imbued with cybernetic perspectives. This probably needs a full-fledged article, but in a nutshell, what I mean by this is that there’s a focus on:

  • See things in (eco)systems
  • See things in terms of their feedback loops
  • Integration of transdisciplinary perspectives (transdisciplinary practice)
  • Seeing myself as part of the system (also known as 2nd order cybernetics)

I will also likely use different frameworks from management cybernetics to frame and understand my research.

Overview of what I mean by cybernetics-infused research. From Lorenn Ruster’s thesis proposal presentation, June 2022

4. I will work with early-stage startups using (or planning to use) AI models

This research focuses on entrepreneurial ecosystems, as it is here that hotbeds of innovation are formed, where the DNA of the next unicorn business is created and where decisions are made about the nature of new products and services based on AI that will potentially impact our lives. and shape our future at scale.

As for next year, my activities will look something like this:

  • Phase 1: Explore questions about what dignity-centric AI development looks like in entrepreneurial ecosystems, what mechanisms currently exist to enable a dignity ecosystem, and where there are gaps.
  • Phase 2: Work with early-stage startups to develop a prototype designed to enable the development of dignity-centric AI.
  • Phase 3: This prototype will be further tested and evaluated in at least one other context, for example, an accelerator context or in the context of venture capital post-investment services.

5. You can get involved in different ways. Please contact us!

As a former consultant, I am acutely aware of the risks of doing work that sits in a report (or thesis in this case) and never realizes its full potential for practical impact. To combat this, I focus on ensuring that my research is “in the world”. You may be able to help!!

If you’re someone who puts AI ethics into practice in an organization of any size (even better if you’re a startup!) — I would like to discuss and if it suits you, to interview you on your experiences.

If you are someone who works in (or founded) an organization that has dignity as a guiding value/principle/light. I would love to discuss to understand what dignity means to you in your context!

If you’re an entrepreneur interested in the ethics of AI and unsure what to do next, get in touch! I’m currently working with three different AI startups and hope the learnings we create together will be applicable to a much wider audience.

If you are an academic, practitioner or practitioner reading this and think it would be great if she read or attended or collaborated with — please contact us! I’m also particularly interested in resources/people who have something to share about reflective practice, the cybernetics of management, and non-Western views of dignity.

And if you’re someone I haven’t considered above but have something to share, ask, or suggest, I would absolutely love to hear from you.

Surprising encounters usually lead to incredibly interesting places. I can’t wait to see where the research can take me from here.

Jessica C. Bell