Centre for Ethics's Markus Dubber launches the 'Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI'

July 21, 2020 by Alexa Zulak - A&S News

From smart cities and autonomous vehicles to facial recognition software and digital assistants standing by to answer any question you may have for them, artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly becoming an important part of everyday life — and it’s only the beginning. 

But as people start to rely more on AI to help with daily tasks and as the technology continues to change, significant questions about the ethics of AI begin to emerge.  

Something Markus Dubber, director of the Centre for Ethics, is delving into with the release of the Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI, a first of its kind globally. 

Launched earlier this month, the nearly 900-page handbook examines the ever-evolving field of AI through an interdisciplinary and international lens, exploring 44 topics ranging from fairness and the concept of ‘bias’, race and gender, AI and consent, the ethics of automating design and more.   

“I like these Oxford handbooks because of the opportunity to define the canon of the field and also shape it,” says Dubber, a professor in the Faculty of Law and co-editor of the handbook. “We can include approaches, perspectives and feature scholars who perhaps hadn't been thought of as central to the scholarly enterprise.” 

Building off of the centre’s Ethics of AI in Context initiative — an interdisciplinary workshop series launched in 2017 — Dubber, alongside co-editors Sunit Das, an associate professor in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, and Frank Pasquale of the University of Maryland, set out to create a handbook that was interdisciplinary from the ground up. They were looking to broaden the conversation around the ethics of AI to include more than just technological perspectives, but also the humanities, social sciences, law, medicine and engineering. 

The blue book cover of Ethics of AI, with a face icon made our of circles.
The nearly 900-page handbook examines the ever-evolving field of AI through an interdisciplinary and international lens, exploring 44 topics ranging from fairness and the concept of ‘bias’, race and gender, AI and consent and more. 

“AI now touches every aspect of everything we do individually, politically, communally, socially. So, all disciplines should be part of this conversation,” says Dubber. 

“It's exciting to see the range of people participating. Engineers, philosophers, political scientists, lawyers and cognitive scientists — some who didn't necessarily think of themselves as being part of this discipline at the beginning, but now they do.” 

And while Dubber is no stranger to Oxford Press handbooks — he has co-edited several law handbooks — the ethics of AI did come with its own unique challenges. 

“There’s no handbook for the handbook,” he says. 

“The discipline is so fast moving — not just the tech but also the ethics. Anytime there's a new tech development, there will be some new ethical issue. So, it's not just that the technology keeps evolving, the ethics — the reflection on the normative dimensions of the technology — will change, too.” 

But Dubber says the Centre for Ethics — an interdisciplinary unit from the onset — was the perfect place to take on this challenge. 

And it allowed him to involve his students from the centre in the project. 

Graduate and undergraduate students in the centre’s cross-divisional Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in Context course, along with research assistants and student affiliates of the centre’s Ethics of AI Lab, collaborated in pulling together an annotated bibliography to act as an open-access online companion to the handbook.  

“It was fun to see the students take charge and produce something of first-rate quality that, as far as I know, is the only one of its kind anywhere,” he says. “This is a comprehensive annotated bibliography of more than 800 sources covering 44 different subjects in the ethics of AI, ranging from smart cities to the singularity to European AI policy.” 

As for what Dubber hopes readers take away from the handbook? He hopes it encourages people to realize that they don’t have to be experts in AI to think critically about the ethical issues surrounding the field. 

“Instead of being overwhelmed by this accumulation of expertise across the world and across disciplines, they can see these are all important approaches and perspectives,” he says. “Ultimately, it's up to each one of us to decide what role AI — or technology generally — should play.” 

Because for Dubber, ethics is a great equalizer. 

“You don't need a degree in ethics to have an ethical view of anything,” he says. “You don't need a degree to have a sense of what's right and wrong and to think things through.” 

Revisit a Q&A with Dubber about the Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI on U of T News.