ETHICOMP/CEPE 2017: Smart Cities

ETHICOMP/CEPE 2017: Smart Cities

Time flies and it’s more than 18 months since the last ETHICOMP at De Montfort’s Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility in 2015. This time the conference moved further afield to the University of Torino, Italy, to be co-hosted with CEPE (Computer Ethics Philosophical Enquiry). From the 5-8th July I attended 4 days of panels, keynotes and plenaries at (what must be!) the biggest computer ethics conference in the world.

Train from Airport to Torino

It was great to catch up with familiar faces, and I was pleased to be part of the ICT and the City session organised by Prof Michael Nagenborg from 4TU/Twente University.

The full paper has just been published in a new journal, Orbit, that has emerged from a big EPSRC RRI project. The paper has also been nominated to be published in the ACM SIGCAS publication, Computers and Society, so hopefully, I’ll be able to link to that in due course too.

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Before the workshop, Michael conducted interviews with different panellists about our work and published these on his website: Urban Technologies. My discussion there with him is a bit more detailed, but to summarise, this paper mainly focused on unpacking ethical dimensions of the role of designers in regulation. Using mediation theory, it discusses how designers can address concerns of citizens posed by smart cities. In sustainably scaling up IoT technologies to the city level, HCI designers can both engage with the needs of citizens and respond to these through the design of urban IoT systems (eg using participatory/co-design, value sensitive design etc). I explored how concepts from HCI, like ‘seamful design’, could be useful for surfacing the regulatory uncertainties inherent in future urban IoT management.



As is common at many conferences I’ve attended this year (especially BILETA 2017 and TILTing 2017), AI and algorithms continue to be hot topics.  Below I’ve provided a list of some personal highlights from across the conference.

Day 1:

  • The Law track – I enjoyed Burri et al’s paper on using legal personhood  (e.g. LLPs) as a mechanism to attach legal responsibilities to autonomous systems. They compared legal possibilities for using this route in different jurisdictions, namely the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Delaware, US.
  • The Fiction track – Johnson et al discussed using Design Fictions to engage with ethical dimensions of new technologies; Vallejos et al presented findings from the CRUCIBLE funded project ‘AI Goes to War‘; Adams and Ben-Youssef  presented their work on the interplay between superheroes narratives and security/policy debates (e.g. through Daredevil & Superman vs Batman).

Day 2:

  • Ethics in Software Development Track – Wolf et al examined the case of Microsoft Tay; Breems proposed ways to support longitudinal reasoning by software engineers about responsibility for artificial agents, linking initial action with future impacts.
  • Video Games Track – Flick discussed the construction of a code of ethics for in-game archaeological practices in No Man’s Sky; Neely explored the ethical interplay/disconnect between real world identities of players and in-game avatars (for example in World of Warcraft); Klein and Lin deconstructed the arguments underpinning the widely discussed Ban on Sex Robots campaign.

Day 3:

  • Both ICT and the City Track Sessions, with talks from:
    • Nagenbourg (chair) set the scene highlighting the need for smart cities to emerge as sites of citizen participation and engagement, attending to risks of urban surveillance;
    • Gonzalez Woge proposed learning from post-phenomenology and how agency is increasingly embedded in our environment (through ambient intelligence) using the example of open living labs;
    • Dainow suggested using autopoietic theories to reframe definitions and ethical implications of smart cities;
    • Heimo discussed ethical dilemmas of constructing mixed reality experiences for cultural heritage where insufficient historical information requires designers to take creative liberties to create an immersive experience, but at the expense of historical accuracy;
    • Lastly, Fichtner explored how the logic of optimising flows of knowledge underpinning smart cities can reduce spaces for creativity and citizens may find themselves experiencing the city through spatial filter bubbles.
  • I really enjoyed the keynote from Herman Tavani who surveyed shifts in computer ethics and highlighted the need to return to formal logic and critical reasoning in deconstructing arguments within computer ethics.

Day 4

  • Social Media Track: Tuikka et al provided detailed insights on ethics of netnography as a research tool; Koene et al unpacked the nature of editorial responsibilities social media platforms may owe to users due to personalisation algorithms (e.g. Facebook news feed curating content for individuals); lastly, Koga and Yanagihara explored ethical aspects of social media marketing, focusing on prominent case studies (eg Target pregnancy case; BabyFoot online competitions).
  •  The keynote from James Moor, who received the Weizenbaum Award, examined the future of computer ethics with challenges stemming from AI.

Originally posted at