New Job: Professor of Ethics and Technology

I've recently accepted the position of Full Professor of Ethics and Technology at The Hertie School of Governance, in Berlin. Hertie is a relatively young graduate school with a research focus on public policy and international relations.  I will be taking this position up at the beginning of Spring semester 2020 full time. I expect within the next few weeks to finalise an ongoing relationship with Bath; I expect to remain affiliated in some way and involved with the Accountable, Responsible and Transparent AI Doctoral Training Centre. However, from 1 February 2020, I’m delighted to say that I and my partner Will Lowe will be working at Hertie.

If you think of me as a computer scientist (or a biologist) then this new position may sound like a departure. However, I have always been at least as interested in natural intelligence as artificial intelligence. This new position realises two very long-term goals I've had:
  • to be a natural and social scientist who uses AI as a tool,
  • to work in the same place with my partner, in a country that is foreign to us both (we’re neophiles).
Having said this, my new position in some ways violates a more recent goal I've acquired:
  • to serve my country in its time of crisis.
In fact, I have two countries and they are both in crisis right now. In fact, I had sort of expected that given the present situation in the world, my next job might be a position of leadership or even government, since many people whose careers I admire have moved back and forth in and out of government.  In fact, I did in the last year or so apply (in response to invitation) to three positions of scientific leadership. One was in London (as the chief scientist for the Government’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports, one was in Edinburgh (the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence in the University’s new Future’s Institute), and one in San Francisco (the Scientific Director for the Partnership of AI). So it’s not so much that I wanted to run away from Brexit – I would absolutely have stayed in the face of crisis if I thought I was in a position where I might have had a fighting chance to address that crisis.
However since I was a very small child, my first love has always been science. And over the last four years, as I have been increasingly spending my time trying to help governments with policy questions, a lot of my scientific curiosity has been piqued around questions to do with politics, economics, and governance. The position I have landed is one where I wasn’t invited to apply by the institution, but rather I was sent the notice of the job by not just a friend, but three different friends, who emailed that they’d spotted the “perfect” position for me in Berlin – and one even had an idea of a colocated job for my partner. Our applications have been successful, and everyone is thrilled. I’ve already had new colleagues writing me with research and teaching collaboration ideas. 

Changing disciplines

Many people who read this blog know me as a researcher in AI ethics. My focus clearly will not be purely AI, but then it never has been. Two of my four degrees are in social sciences. I have always viewed AI primarily as a means by which I can understand natural intelligence. Intelligence is the capacity to do the right thing in response to a context--now I will be studying that capacity primarily in the context of governance. Ethics is the means by which a society maintains itself; government is one of those means, though obviously not the only one. Technology is a means by which we extend ourselves.
Government is a key component to maintaining cooperation at the scale we've seen since before the advent of history. Government is the (re)distribution of resources to give a society sufficient stability and security that it persists. Since the twentieth century, the peoples of the planet through the United Nations have formally acknowledged that one key to this is recognising the rights of individual humans, including crucially the right to freedom of opinion and thought – a right surveillance challenges, and intelligent technology facilitates surveillance.  More generally, digital technology, and perhaps any distance-reducing technology, seem to challenge the capacities of governments to govern, not least by requiring redistribution that goes beyond the geographic borders defining the regions over which governments are able to govern.
Politics and institutions haven’t suddenly become my sole interest – in fact, this weekend I’ve been working on a journal article about the nature of biological evolution as explored through simulated gene regulatory networks. But they are an incredibly important application area of the sorts of scientific interests I do have, and it’s fantastically exciting to be going somewhere that has been making tremendous hires of people with expertise in these areas. Also, given that at this moment I’m someone that governments, corporations, NGOs, and reporters do ask about policy, it’s good that I know as much as I can about these areas, so I can be as helpful as possible. So in a way, I expect I will still be serving both my countries in the best way I can, or at least in the best way I’ve been afforded.

Keeping my second citizenship

I have lived 18 of the last 28 years in the UK. I chose to apply for a passport there (rather than maintain my previous, wonderfully-British immigration status "indefinite leave to remain") in 2007 because I wanted to be a citizen – of the EU. I had been consulting for the European Commission since soon after my arrival at Bath, and I became impressed by the EU as a means of coordinating national governments. I was fascinated by its alien organisation – was it even a democracy? (Yes, it turns out, but the UK should have been making that way more clear. Sadly, I wasn’t the only one there confused.)
I sincerely admire the UK, not only for its culture, but for the leadership it's shown in AI. In fact, I didn’t have much interest in or understanding of leadership, governance, and policy until sometime after colleagues involved me in my first policy meeting, the EPSRC/AHRC Robot Ethics retreat in 2010.  That meeting (and my presence at it) resulted in the Principles of Robotics, the first national-level AI ethics softlaw, and one that clearly underlies the 2019 OECD (and now G20) Principles of AI, that dozens of nations signed this year – including the USA and China.  AI and its governance are two of the few positive assets that the May government dedicated any resources to, and even Johnson has just dedicated his UN speech to this topic. The UK is as far as I can tell leading the world in hiring up it’s regulatory teams. I sincerely admire and am in awe of the teams the British are putting together. I wish I could have been more directly involved. I hope the UK is able to continue deploying its genius in leadership in AI governance, and I hope I can still be able to help.  Of course, I very much still hope they will do this from within the European Union.

Working in policy

Some of the greatest problems of governance at the moment are transnational. We have not adequately dealt with the problems of natural transnational monopolies that our technology has been affording since not only the digital revolution, but also the advent of oil magnates, analogue telecommunications, aerospace, multinational pharmaceuticals, "high" finance, and so forth. Entities where the cost of transport is so low and the benefits of scale or expertise are so high that it's difficult for local versions to compete without substantial subsidy. 
Geography will always matter. Your quality of life is highly determined by the wellbeing of your neighbours, including your mutual access to healthcare, water, clean air, and education. Security concerns and many economic opportunities depend on resources, terrain, climate and neighbours, and so therefore will tradeoffs in substantial questions of government also vary with location.
I am presently convinced that it makes sense for power to be focussed foremost at national and secondarily at regional levels, both because of the problems of coordination (including managing corruption) at scale, and also because diversity is essential to robustness, evolution, and other types of change.  We need multiple, localised, and specialist governments to explore diverse paths forward. Yet governance works best at regulating entities within a set of borders, and some powerful and important entities transcend national borders.
I believe that the EU, while not perfect, is the best template we have so far on how to coordinate action between governments to address problems like managing transnational human-made forces, and transnational resources like biodiversity and the climate. In the EU, member countries have the laws, the courts, and the military. The transnational EU parliament, council, etc. coordinate policy and write treaties concerning the nature of some of the laws member countries will write, where it makes sense for the block to be "harmonised," that is, to act as a unit.
I hope that there will be other global-regional hubs for coordinating policy. Europe may be leading by demonstration now, but ultimately the world is a big place, with diverse problems and opportunities, and huge numbers of increasingly empowered people. Perhaps America and China already sort of are hubs like the EU, though with less devolved regional power and therefore less diversity of thought at the executive level. But ideally everyone would live in a country that works with others in such a way that they can wield the kind of power it took to enact the GDPR, and to address the democratic and ecological challenges we are all facing.
Three years ago towards the end of my 2015-2016 sabbatical I reported the projects I was pursuing to my then head of department and he said "only that thing about bias is actually computer science.” He was worried that I needed to focus on the metrics the UK government uses to determine who to give research funding to. 
While I'm very glad the semantics paper came out, in my own assessment, the work I was doing on political polarisation was far more important, and had just as much business being done in a computer science department. Departments (like countries) are important infrastructure, but they should enable academics and the pursuit of academic research, not hamper it. 
Hertie is by design highly interdisciplinary. I’m not really even in a department, though I will be a founding member of their Centre for Digital Governance, I anticipate collaborating with researchers from all Hertie’s Centres of Competence.  Pursuing the questions I now have will be much easier with the sort of expertise Hertie cultivates close at hand.

Systems Engineering of AI

Having said that, I’m not ready to leave the discipline of AI itself entirely behind either. I have heard leading experts in AI saying that the next big frontier for AI is Systems AI, the systems engineering of intelligent artefacts. This is exactly the area I identified to specialise in when I was picking a thesis topic after coming to the MIT AI Lab back in the 1990s. The anthropomorphism that comes along with “intelligence” seems to keep encouraging people to look for magic single algorithms (the spark of life) that will somehow “teach themselves”, as if anything in Nature does that. Well, a lot of complex behaviour has been programmed into life through billions of years of evolution, but individual organisms learn very little on their own. The more cognitive a species in general the more social. 
Anyway, for my PhD, rather than looking for incremental improvement in some algorithm for learning or planning, I wanted to look at how to make great AI by bringing together the innovations that were already out there into systems that worked. This means, I wanted to help people program AI, particularly real-time, human-like AI. I was trying to make it easier to program robots, but I mostly myself used it for doing science, and in the end the majority of people who took up my PhD output actually put it into creating computer game characters (it took me years to notice, but Alex Champandard finally drew the uncited connection between my work and behaviour trees on his old AI-GameDev Website).
Fortunately, three of my recent PhD students worked on the Systems Engineering of AI, and two of them (Rob Wortham & Andreas Theodorou) also worked on AI ethics and  AI transparency with me. They and the third, Swen Gaudl, all have academic positions now, and I anticipate I will continue being able to work with them not only on making it easier to build AI, but on making it more de rigueur to build AI that clarifies accountability.

Bath and ART-AI

I am leaving behind in Bath two institutions I had a major role in bringing into being: the AI group in the Department of Computer Science which I founded and for a period represented / “led” (like anyone can lead academics), and the ART-AI doctoral training centre, a strongly interdisciplinary programme for creating and maintaining transparency in and accountability for AI. Every PhD student at ART-AI is required to have supervisors from at least two different faculties, let alone departments, and to take graduate level courses in a faculty not represented by their previous degrees. My recently former head of department, Eamonn O’Neill, is now the head of this effort. I wish him well, and hope to continue to collaborate with the centre and that Hertie will become one of the many partners of ART-AI.

After four years in New Jersey, we're heading back to the land of transport options.