Do Robots Have Values? With Professor Jon Whittle

Today on AI Australia, we have the opportunity to talk to Professor Jon Whittle of Monash University about the impacts—both good and bad—data science is having on the world around us. As co-author of a series of published and soon-to-be published papers in the fields of software development, ethics, and values, Jon is well placed to talk to us today about the heightened risks and opportunities that the development of data-science based systems brings to our world.

About Professor Jon Whittle:

Professor Jon Whittle is the Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University. Jon is a world-renowned expert in software engineering and human-computer interaction (HCI), with a particular interest in IT for social good. In software engineering, his work has focused around model-driven development (MDD) and, in particular, studies on industrial adoption of MDD. 

In HCI, he is interested in ways to develop software systems that embed social values. Jon’s work is highly interdisciplinary. As an example, he previously led a large multidisciplinary project with ten academic disciplines looking at how innovative digital technologies can support social change. In 2019 Monash launched the Data Futures Institute, which we will find out more about today. 

Before joining Monash, Jon was a Technical Area Lead at NASA Ames Research Center, where he led research on software for space applications. He was also Head of the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University, where he led eight multi-institution, multi-disciplinary research projects. These projects focused on the role of IT in society, and included digital health projects, sustainability projects and projects in digital civics. 

  • 2:30 How is Monash busting the old model of disciplinary siloed schools and turning toward a passion for multidisciplinary studies? How does the intersection of fields lead to progress, especially in software engineering and AI? 
  • 5:00 How do you go about raising awareness of these types of social, ethical, and psychological aspects of interdisciplinary work and studies with a deep technical kind of audience who are focused on their tools and being the best they can in their particular arena? What role do universities play in creating engineers who will consider ethics and values in their software products?
  • 8:00 What are values? Jon gives us a long and short answer that can include everything from social responsibility to hedonism to inclusion. What role do social scientists play in how we understand values? Jon discusses Schwartz’s Ten Universal Values, corporate values, and the difference between ethics and values—as well as the ability for them to contradict one another. How do values differ by culture, age group, and other demographic factors?
  • 14:00 Who gets dominance in a software application—who chooses the values that underpin the software? How do we take the implicit aspect of values in software and turn it into an explicit process? Jon discusses the maturity scale of companies and their corporate values and whether or not this impacts design decisions. 
  • 19:00 Jon discusses the impact of corporate values on software development and real-world cases of ethical issues that have arisen due to software. This includes everything from parole re-offender predictions, priority one-day shipping, and self-harm on Instagram. 
  • 23:00 Are values at the root of algorithmic bias? Different groups experience products and services differently, especially if the data and ideas going into it are heavily biased.  80% of AI professors are male—how does this influence the way systems are designed? Are our programs today working to increase diversity in AI and software development and, even when those fields are diverse, what difference will it make? Jon proposes someone on the team to specifically ask questions about values during the design process. 
  • 29:00 Will we ever get to an empirical state where values are so measurable that we could be alerted, automatically, of a breach? Jon discusses the complexities of this process, but shares progress that is already occurring on this front. Even without perfect accuracy, we can see if things are getting better or worse. 
  • 32:00 Is there a government role in policing the ethical use of software, data, and AI? Jon shares his thoughts on a multi-faceted approach to regulation. 
  • 35:00 How is Monash helping students prepare for a values-first data environment? Jon discusses the “Bachelors of Applied Data Science” multidisciplinary degree and the combination of “data plus x” in education and the workforce. 
  • 38:00 Jon discusses examples where values went right and why we need values built-in to software upfront, the way we do with security. Jon also answers the questions, “Do robots have values?” with a surprising standpoint.  

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