This is such a brilliant and timely little novel. It touches on so many important ethical questions about AI/robots: care robots, AI replacing jobs, robots/AI as human-like species deserving rights versus being like appliances, philosophy of mind, and more. I’m excited to talk to my students at Olin about this book. It’s our summer reading for incoming first years.
Ishiguro’s “Klara” is an artificial friend (AF). She is a care robot (like the many, notably from Japan, that are developed to be companions to humans and help them with social-emotional health). Her objective is to ensure the child she is acquired for is not lonely. She believes the worst thing a human can be is lonely. Her child Josie is a little sick and lives far away from others. The novel covers Klara’s efforts to serve Josie well.
The novel starts in the store where Klara is for sale. She is our narrator. When we meet her, she is starting to form assumptions about the world. Her observational skills are unusually good for an AF, but her narrative is of course flawed both because of the limits of her technology (cleverly illustrated by Ishiguro) and the limits of her experience.
Ishiguro is not the first to offer a first person perspective to an AI. Many fine examples, especially the Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy beginning with Ancillary Justice, come to mind. What I love about Klara and the Sun is that it’s a bildungsroman—one of my favorite genres—for a young robot. This allows us to explore some of the key ethical questions from a unique perspective and provides for the eponymous plot line written stylistically as a fusion of science fiction and realism.
The book is a fast read, filled with clever imagery and symbolism, which open and close the narrative elegantly. I would read this even if I didn’t have to, and I recommend that you do too.
Howard Gardner is a mentor of mine. So it was with personal interest that I picked up this memoir to learn a little bit about the scholar I worked for at Project Zero a decade ago. His voice really comes through in this book. I can hear his didactic tone but also the levity when he cracks a bit of a dad joke. I like the structure of the book around his intellectual development and the set of experiences that contribute to recognizing and using his “synthesizing mind.” I came away with a deeper appreciation for Howard and the opportunity to work alongside him and learn from him.
There are also some valuable insights in this book for scholars trying to make sense of their own work, especially ideas that take on a life of their own, such as his theory of multiple intelligences. Howard is rightfully proud of his work despite its misinterpretation and misuse. Fortunately, his curiosity is his guide and his deeply held principles delineate a path toward richer research and applications of his attention toward practical ends in education that have served many people well. I really loved how he acknowledged that projects can fail and some endeavors just simply end, but that there is value in the relationships developed and the people touched by even a short-term effort like the MI-based schools he writes about.
For me, the book was a quick read. And as I am also an academic, there was much wisdom in this meta-narrative from a leading light in the social sciences (or “social relations”). May I maintain his tenacity and curiosity in my own work and keep avoiding disciplinary silos.
Graeff, Erhardt. 2023 (April 20). Using Civic Professionalism to Frame Ethical and Social Responsibility in Engineering. 2023 Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, & Technology (fPET 2023), TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p17wdt2GriQ.
In recent years, professional societies, scholars and educators, and corporations within the fields of engineering and computer science have been grasping for better principles and frameworks for the ethical and social responsibility that engineers, computer scientists, and technologists should embody. Many professional societies (e.g. NSPE, IEEE, ACM) have revised their codes of ethics. Scholars and educators have launched numerous research projects and educational experiments to determine the values and ethical competencies professionals should learn and apply. Corporations have publicized their ethical commitments and formed consortia to govern ethical approaches to research and development areas like artificial intelligence.
We know there are fundamental problems. In 2014, Erin Cech identified a “culture of disengagement” in engineering that weakens engineering students’ commitments to public welfare during their undergraduate years. She argued that ideologies of 1) depoliticization, 2) technical/social dualism, and 3) meritocracy were key pillars of engineering’s disengaged culture. These ideologies undermine engineers’ social responsibility by positioning technical expertise as supremely relevant and perceiving existing social, economic, and political structures as fair and just. In subsequent studies, Cech and co-authors call for engineering education and epistemologies of engineering that repoliticize the profession and its work. I believe civic professionalism answers that call.
Based on Harry Boyte’s concept of “citizen professionalism” and Albert Dzur’s concept of “democratic professionalism,” civic professionalism is both a professional identity, anchored by civic attitudes and related values, and a set of normative professional practices that rely on civic knowledge, skills, and habits, which augment specialized technical competencies. In contrast to typical outside experts, Boyte argues citizen professionals see their role as co-creators and facilitators of problem-solving. They acknowledge that they too are citizens alongside many other stakeholders and should share power over decisions. They acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and expertise in different contexts and embrace local knowledge. Their work serves the common good by solving technical problems while also building and strengthening relationships.
Similar to Boyte’s description, Dzur’s democratic professionals resist the technocratic urge to flatten complex problems into challenges well-suited to professional methods beyond the lay public’s reach, and instead create space for deliberation and collective action regarding social and political issues beyond the borders of their own professional domains. Dzur specifically offers democratic professionalism as a middle ground between a “social trustee” model of professional and its radical critique, which would seek to deprofessionalize expertise and recover all such power for the public. Dzur argues that professionals and laypeople both have a stake in professional decisions and should share oversight of professional ethics democratically.
This is where engineering and computer science should head—framing social and ethical responsibility in terms of a broader civic and democratic responsibility. Although civic professionalism does not have a monopoly on these tenets, which we can locate in other popular ethical engineering frameworks, it does provide a compelling emphasis on epistemic humility, politics, and the common good with clear pedagogical opportunities as this paper will show.
Undergraduate engineering education is not doing enough to address engineering’s culture of disengagement—a culture that inhibits modern society’s ability to serve the public interest and mitigate the threat of technologies amplifying harm. We argue for visions of undergraduate engineering that purposefully embrace the humanities and make civic education integral in order to educate engineers as civic professionals. Two case studies from our college, one curricular and one extracurricular, illustrate how we are building toward a new vision by offering learning experiences in which students can evolve their personal and professional commitments to the common good and practice technical skills in ways responsible to democracy and society.
Among many books critical of social media use, Digital Minimalism is a very accessible and useful read. It synthesizes just enough research and anecdotal examples to be convincing and then offers well-reasoned recommendations for how to choose a more intentional approach to internet-based media consumption.
Compared to his previous few books, Newport does a better of job of collecting a diversity of voices in his reportage, which strengthens the book’s arguments and its accessibility to a wider audience. By emphasizing intentionality rather than a more ideological argument about life purity or economic extortion, Newport offers a big tent for folks to choose to discard the more insidious aspects of smartphone app design, while finding and optimizing for the specific ways platforms can provide value.
To me, the most profound aspect of the digital minimalism philosophy was emphasizing the value of solitude. I had not thought deeply about the idea that humans had evolved to sort through complicated questions during the vast tracts of solitude that were the norm for most of human existence. Solitude has always been a core aid in my work as an academic, but I had not been particularly conscious of it. Now I am seeking out solitude, while also following the advice to reclaim high quality leisure activities, so as to chip away at the perceived value of smartphone use during idle hours.
As a scholar of social media, I am actually embarrassed by how good and useful I am finding Digital Minimalism. I think others will find it useful too.