BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 6: Ethics) #DigiHuman


6/6: Ethics

If a driverless car has to choose between crashing you into a school bus or a wall who do you want to be programming that decision? Aleks Krotoski explores ethics in technology.

Join Aleks as she finds out if it’s even possible for a device to ‘behave’ in a morally prescribed way through looking at attempts to make a smart phone ‘kosher’. But nothing captures the conundrum quite like the ethical questions raised by driverless cars and it’s the issues they raise that she explores with engineer turned philosopher Jason Millar and robot ethicist Kate Darling.

Professor of law and medicine Sheila MacLean offers a comparison with how codes of medical ethics were developed before we hear the story of Gus a 13 year old whose world was transformed by SIRI.

  • Looking ‘behind the curtain’ to those creating our digital world – and how their morality, etc. feeds into that … especially in making decisions about the functionality of the driverless car.
  • Facebook – social contagion experiment – Scientists are presented with the idea that they are ‘providing’ cut and dried solutions, and need more understanding that it affects social interactions. Are making ethical decisions.
  • Ethics themselves are difficult decisions, but placing this into the technology was hard – e.g. created automatic traffic tickets, and found that although the law seems to be cut/dried, as different numbers of tickets were issued depending on how the law was interpreted by the programmers.
  • Machines need to make decisions re driverless cars as to whether the car will hit a baby’s pram, or a wall?
  • What sets our internal moral compass comes from culture, upbringing, or a higher power… but it’s hard to set an ethical position into specifications.
  • Certain number of things are “easy”, but creating a Kosher phone for the Jewish Orthodox community … the developer thought it was ‘pointless but harmless’. Kosher has been determined as ‘fit for purpose’ by a Rabbi… many apps/connectivity removed – developer sees it as an ‘extreme porn filter’, filtering out any possible damage/distraction/against the 613 items of the Torah. The more that the development continued, the more complicated it became, especially as the developer would not be engaged with directly by the Rabbis.
    • Do you get the phone to automatically shut down on the Sabbath, or do you ‘trust the user’ in a self-policing community.
    • How responsible is the developer for the fact that the technology no longer is able to contact outside the community?
  • Driverless cars are programming logic into the cars where unavoidably about to crash. Ensure engineers understand that it’s not just a technical problem, but an ethical problem… drivers may not want to trust the developers, but would they want to press ‘wall’ or ‘child’ on setting… which takes it too far?
  • How has medicine dealt with some of these questions – many decisions made after Nuremberg trials when Nazis over-rode moral questions – the patient now often makes the decision, rather than the technologists.
  • Gus, the power of SIRI – can give him endless answers to his (endless) questions. Need to ask very clearly – the possibilities of social bonding with machines – adds extra possibilities for social interactions (for autism). SIRI, however, isn’t designed to form this function, so need to be sure that not replacing human interaction. The machine isn’t the friend – it’s the bridge to friends.
  • Human/robot interaction – recognise cues, can they manipulate those cues to assign particular behaviour? We respond to the lifelike cues that the machines give us – even though we know they are robots …. Companies could exploit that emotional attachment (e.g. compulsory upgrade). Kate Darling – calling for social scientists, philosophers, etc. into these decisions = importance of interdisciplinary input = not just technological decisions (as bioethics has done for years).
  • Require ethics boards … Google only has once because they acquired a company that made it part of the deal – difficult to incentivise for companies.
  • Don’t want to do – as much software does – test it – see if it works – and adapt as it goes wrong. Some issues are too high stakes for this.
  • Kosher Phone – supports agency rather than draining it, in conducting an ‘observant lifestyle’.
  • We tend to align ourselves with the moral codes, rules/regulations, etc. of our societies, until they don’t appear to align with our moral compass. The same goes for technology – but as we don’t see technology as anything more as ‘neutral’ we don’t realise when the ethic of that technology stands in contrast to our own ethical world view – do we give our choices to ethical boards at tech companies, or do we force them to become more transparent about their decisions.
  • If it works smoothly, it’s a product that people will embrace – you make a better product.

And see the Tumblr associated with the programme.


BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 5: Maps) #DigiHuman


5/6: Maps

Aleks Krotoski examines what digital mapping has meant for our understanding of the world. Are we always aware of the decisions that make them look the way they do? Traditionally of course maps are as “authored” as anything else. As Simon Garfield writer of On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does , explains we should think of maps like the biography of a famous person; highly subjective and usually with some sort of angle.

We hear this authorship at work when we join Bob Egan of PopSpotsNYC; he maps out where famous album cover photos were taken in his native New York and puts them online for us all to visit. We join him on the hunt through Google maps and on the streets as tracks down his latest quarry. Bob is adding his own layer of information to the digital mapping of our world for Dr Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute this is happening all around us.

And it’s this phenomenon that makes the understanding of the choices that go into making our maps even more important. We hear about the experience of paleo-anthropologist Prof Lee Berger and how hidden choices in GPS data he was using nearly cost him the most important discovery of his career. Aleks then explores if the so called “open mapping” movement hold the answer to eliminating some of issues created by digital maps with the example of Christchurch recovery map -a crowd sourced map that was created within hours of the Christchurch earth quake of 2012.

  • The changes in digital cartography have changed more than the previous 2000 years.
  • Easier to access more material, denser layers of material – bundles of digital material related to places play a huge role in how the world is shaped – particularly useful to find e.g. places The Who played, etc.
  • Ancient maps are littlered with mistakes, as people didn’t want to admit their mistakes – and they are typically one person’s view of the world – because printed we think “oh, it must be true”. .. how much do we trust the person making the maps (what do they have to gain?).
  • All maps are produced by someone (who has been paid?) and for a particular purpose – and often we can’t tell what that purpose is.
  • Google – discovered the importance of providing maps – offering businesses/consumers, etc. ways to connect.
  • Digital = given access to discover huge number of caves, etc… but also allows to map below the earth, Google wasn’t developed as a mapping company, and hadn’t realised how much power they had and the responsibility that came with that.
  • Process is becoming increasingly automated, but decisions are being made – whether by algorithms, or the original programmer, or…?
  • Open mapping movement used in New Zealand Earthquake… reliant upon people upon the ground updating live from the ground. No claims about validity made, but here’s where the information came from…
  • We can now tweet, FB our positions, and that immediately becomes part of the map – a constantly updated archive… appears to solve many of the older problems, but will see that this brings new problems.
    • Those areas of the world that are participating are those that are contributing more , or contributing information on behalf of those not writing.
    • We now have a data-centred view of the world – it has to fit in a database, it needs to be able to be codified. Can only show you what is already in them, or what fits in the database.
    • Seem objective but have even more power, as we embed them in daily life, and we have no idea of who has the power behind them – and we lose the historical specificity.
    • What will the volatility of our maps mean for our capacity to make discoveries? What do others think the environment is composed of? Once see what they think is different, can see what is “not normal”, and that’s where discoveries are made.

BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 4: Nostalgia) #DigiHuman


4/6: Nostalgia

We live in a world where the nostalgia for the past now permeates our present.

With online trends like ‘Throw Back Thursdays’, apps like Timehop and platforms which gives you the tools to make your digital image look like it was taken with an analogue camera, the internet has never seemed so backwards-facing.

In this week’s episode of The Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski visits imagined worlds and eras long past to explore whether the web is a nostalgia machine.

We speak with Professor of Svetlana Boym to trace the origins of the word back to homesick Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century, visit a water park in New Jersey which was reborn through the collective power of online nostalgia and take tea with a vintage enthusiast, who divides his time between working as an air host in a high-flying company, with living in the 1940s.

  • Disposableness of so much modern technology, but the (perceived) lasting nature of old technologies.
  • Nostalgia part of every-day life, in packaging, the hand-made, we make do and made, and nostalgia is so easy to access online, including pop-culture moments on Youtube, remixed tunes on Spotify, watch films that are remakes of originals on Netflix. Shaped to fill the sense we’ve lost something – is the Internet a nostalgia machine, and is it trapping us in a digital past?
  • Nostalgia is a longing for something that no longer exists, or indeed, may never have existed. People draw comfort from the past, because the future is unknown?
  • A feeling of nostalgia helps us part with our cash more easily (so a Vaseline tinted lens). Look and feel of technologies/apps – qualities of a past aesthetic gives a vision of the future. No one gets the grandeur of what you’re actually seeing, but an Instagram filter, etc. can give a sense of the emotion raised.
  • Online, so much of what exists has so little tangibility.
  • Music is tied up with so many things – and can definitely take you back to a moment.
  • E-book reader – re-creates the look of a book as how people accustomed to read.
  • Utopian nature of language used in ‘the web’ – nostalgia for somewhere with a ‘home’, etc. Nostalgia is built into the infrastructure.
  • The internet savvy generation can access nostalgia at any point – not having to wait for time to chill around a table with wine… can use the internet to create shared nostalgic experiences (in this case the world’s most dangerous water park). Lots of people had something to say to this.
  • When someone in 1940s house, someone who lived through that time visited and wondered why would choose to live that way…
  • The web has made nostalgia ‘nimble’ – can find things and make them present – including cherry picking aspects of your life and choosing how it looks…
  • There’s something more ‘wizard of Oz’ going on online… e.g. Spotify – understand what links to what … allows them to choose more ‘recommendations’ to present to the user. Personal data is not just used to sell us data, but to make us nostalgic. Invisible code in the software – can work out what is popular amongst your friends in their network.
  • Nostalgia = critical importance if take from that past experience to apply to the presence. We need a sense of ‘slower time’ – if only experience of presence is technological – are you really experiencing presence?
  • TimeHop and Throwback Thursdays = overt examples – difference between enjoying elements of the past, and getting stuck in a nostalgic loop, because the software is pre-empting your choices.

BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 3: Abandon) #DigiHuman


3/6: Abandon

What happens when we abandon a place? And why is it so difficult for us to leave these places behind?

In this episode, Aleks explores abandon both on and offline. We tell the story of the only permanent resident of Fukushima’s radiation exclusion zone. Naoto Matsura stayed in Tomioka while everyone around him fled. He’s now the unofficial caretaker of this abandoned town.

Aleks contrasts this with a remarkable example of digital abandon. Meridian 59 was the first massively multiplayer online game. When newer competitors arrived on the scene, many players left. The game has been abandoned and restarted several times over since. Aleks hears from the hardcore community of players who refuse to let the game disappear entirely.

  • What are the threads that draw us into the abandoned? We want to understand what has gone before?
  • In physical environments (e.g. post Tsunami), if there’s no one left, someone may stay, in order to provide for the other creatures.
  • These abandoned places, we are provoked to think about our relationship to place. Love of nature built into our evolution? We need place to survive and sustain?
  • Why are we not seeking comfort, refuge – rather than places that have been abandoned?
  • Post-religious societies – have fascination for unearthly places … our version of spiritual experience? Mystery, ghostly, re-imagination of imagination in a doubting age. Often ‘moral landscapes’ – can be places of redemption where people can start again. Often destroyed by an act of ‘human arrogance’ or greed. Do we repopulate as penance?
  • Hearing about the development of online gaming. The importance of being able to see when Meridian 59 players came online = a cohesive platform. Has kept the group together whilst much bigger games continue to develop.
  • As the game was closing down – 100s of players were actively online, saying goodbye – (the world felt like a real world – people got married, etc. – to have it taken away felt like a violation).
  • In the digital world – it’s much easier to ‘click away’, and no one really knows how to build a healthy (engineered) a society? Still very new. How engineer a social experience that people will keep with a platform? Underestimate the amount of time that people invest in something, so they are less likely to abandon a platform.
  • Abandonment indicates movement… so is there a similar pull as towards physical spaces? Places of redemption, more than spaces of sin and guilt – without dust, could be rebuilt.
  • 2006/7 – Second Life was huge – but unlike physical – don’t get over-growth, etc. but as game not designed to last 20+ years, bits of code do collapse, etc.
  • When we say ‘abandoned’, we are talking about ourselves as a species.
  • EMOTIONAL AND SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO GAME AND TO EACH OTHER = RESCUED FOR DIGITAL ABANDONMENT – now been released as open-source for players to develop as they wish.
  • Debate as to whether to ‘start over’ – Meridian 59 – decided not to reboot as all that pre-existing gameplay, etc. is part of the game’s history. If revisit after 5 years, it’s not changed – unlike if physically disappear after 5 years, friends and place will both have changed.
  • The novelty of a new place that can be imagined.
  • If there are people, things don’t get completely abandoned …

BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 2: Language) #DigiHuman


2/6: Language

We communicate with each other in more ways than ever and with an ever expanding range of devices and platforms. But they all piggy back on an earlier invention, our original social networking technology – language.

In this edition of the Digital Human Aleks Krotoski explores the idea of language as a technology itself and how people over the years have attempted to improve it; re-engineer it for maximum efficiency, or use it as a lever of social change.

She speaks to Professor David Crystal about how we’re living through a period of rapid language growth comparable to the renaissance or industrial revolution. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel explains how we can consider language as a technology devised by natural selection while linguist Arika Okrent charts the attempts down the years by those who think they can perfect the function of language by devising their own.

  • We think of technologies that act on our world, or see language as a technology built on social selection/evolution.
  • Language allows us to find out what is going on inside others minds, but it’s more than a tool – it’s something we join – it’s society.
  • We’ve heard that tech is destroying our mother tongues, text shortening, beauty lost…
  • The importance of language – it doesn’t change at a steady rate. There’s not particularly more words coming into the language, but the technology is allowing them to be shared quicker.
  • We use our language to suit the wiring in someone else’s brains (as if by a remote control) – language is used to manipulate the world to suit our needs.
  • There are those who are not happy with current languages and so are creating new languages – see Each have their own grammar, etc. Exotic sounding appeal, but also engineering solutions to communication issues?
  • Understanding why people do what they do – language is one of the ways that explain, but also influences what people did.
  • The web is the space in which people can find these new languages, keep it alive, and share it.
  • If you treat a language like a spade, then it will only ever be good for digging. Children take spades and find new ways to use it … Constructed languages (and natural languages) do this.
  • Every piece of material printed material has been passed through a copy-editor, etc… but blogs, etc. offer a ‘rawer’ version, where the restrictions are social rather than procedural.
  • Language is a way of seeing the world…

There’s been a lot about language going on this semester – just completed the Corpus Mooc.