New U-M Research Center to Focus on Ethical, Equitable Practices in Computing Technology

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor opened its new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing on Jan. 24 to research the opportunities and pitfalls surrounding society’s expansive use of technology and data.
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ESC key graphic
U-M chose the ESC key as the new center’s logo because it was added to the computer keyboard to interrupt a program when it produced unwanted results. // Graphic courtesy of the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor opened its new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing on Jan. 24 to research the opportunities and pitfalls surrounding society’s expansive use of technology and data.

Leaders say the center’s focus will be broader than AI and data usage, and will include increasing attention on privacy, augmented and virtual reality, open data, and identity.

The center is sponsored by the U-M School of Information, Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, and the Department of Communication and Media in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Included on the core team are other researchers from LSA; Stamps School of Art & Design; School of Music, Theatre and Dance; and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“This is a topic that used to be on the fringes but more recently has gotten broader attention as we have experienced many unintended consequences of technology,” says Silvia Lindtner, the center’s associate director and an assistant professor of information and art and design.

Among the concerns over the increasing use of AI and data-based algorithms in everything from hiring to online ad targeting are gender and racial stereotyping, and an overall lack of accountability and digital justice.

The interdisciplinary center will bring together scholars committed to “feminist, justice-focused, inclusive, and interdisciplinary approaches to computing,” organizers say.

“What is unique about a University of Michigan center is the university’s public nature that allows it to engage deeply with a broader public, with policy experts and with actors in the social justice movement,” Lindtner says.

The team is calling the center ESC, likening it to the key on the computer. The mission statement says:

“The ESC key was added to the computer keyboard to interrupt a program when it produced unwanted results, allowing the system to be critically examined. In the same way, the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing is dedicated to intervening when digital media and computing technologies reproduce inequality, exclusion, corruption, deception, racism, or sexism.”

The need to explore these topics in an academic setting comes as more people are working in the data field. LinkedIn’s 2020 Emerging Jobs Report places artificial intelligence specialist as the No. 1 new career area with 74 percent annual growth, followed by robotics engineer (40 percent) and data scientist (37 percent).

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