New center to focus on ethical, equitable computing practices


Conduct an internet news search on “artificial intelligence,” and interspersed among the steady stream of recent articles about the latest technological experiments, discoveries and promises are numerous pieces with a similar, and many would say, troubling theme:

  • “Google CEO calls for regulation of artificial intelligence” (ABC News)
  • “It’s time for AI ethics to grow up” (WIRED UK)
  • “The algorithm made me do it: Artificial intelligence is still on shaky ground” (Forbes)

Many in the field and those observing technological trends are talking about the need for ethics, standards and policies for our ever-increasing use of artificial intelligence and other emerging computing technologies — a conversation that University of Michigan researchers representing various schools and colleges have been having informally for some time.

Now these U-M leaders, who have been at the forefront of research demonstrating the opportunities and pitfalls surrounding society’s expansive use of technology and data, are coming together under a new Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing.

“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,” said the center’s associate director, Silvia Lindtner, assistant professor of information and of 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 said.

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.”

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).

The center is sponsored by the School of Information, Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, and the Department of Communication and Media in LSA. Included on the core team are other researchers from LSA, the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Center co-director Christian Sandvig, H. Marshall McLuhan Collegiate Professor of Digital Media, says the center’s focus will be broader than AI and data usage. It will include increasing focus on privacy, augmented and virtual reality, the future of work, open data and identity, all of which will be discussed during an event to launch the center.

“Our new center is being energized by student, industry, and public interest in this topic,” said Sandvig, who has appointments in the School of Information, Science and Technology Policy Program, Institute for Social Research, the Stamps School and LSA. “With recent events like last year’s Google employee walkouts, it’s clear that there are tech workers who also want justice and ethics to be central to their professional life.”

The half-day launch event is from 1-5 p.m. Jan. 24, at 2435 North Quad. It is open to the public but people are asked to RSVP at A livestream will be available with details on the RSVP page.

Panelists include:

  • •Julia Angwin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup, a nonprofit accountability journalism organization and publication focused on investigating the tech industry.
  • danah boyd, technology and social media scholar, partner researcher at Microsoft Research, founder and president of Data & Society Research Institute, and a visiting professor at New York University.
  • André Brock, associate professor of literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech and author of the forthcoming book “Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures.”
  • Marc DaCosta, co-founder and chairman of Enigma, an open data infrastructure company. He is also a software artist focusing on data, privacy and identity. 
  • Jen Gennai, lead for responsible innovation at Google, the group responsible for implementing Google’s AI principles.
  • Holly Okonkwo, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Purdue University, studies the culture of the computing industry and the experience of women technologists of color, most recently in Africa.
  • Monroe Price, professor, founder and former director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on the freedom of expression and media technology in international contexts.

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