Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Gikii workshop, this year hosted in England’s historical capital, Winchester. Since 2006, Gikii has had IT lawyers and technologists come together to spin novel arguments that fuse together legal, technological and popular culture perspectives. Papers have plenty of LOLCats, sci-fi refs and a serious point at their core. This year’s Gikii was no exception, with many wonderfully nerdy indulgences of the community on display. Gikii was the first conference I ever attended in Goteborg back in 2011. At the time, I thought, are all conferences like this? How naive
After a 2 year break, (last year Gikii coincided with Ph.D. submission day so I couldn’t go) it was good to be back. As ever, all presentations were great and highly entertaining, but a few stuck out in my mind:
My own presentation was called “Hunting for ethical innovation in the adventures of Rick and Morty.” The basic premise was to examine some ethically dubious inventions created by the show’s protagonist, Rick, and critique them from a responsible research and innovation perspective. Below you’ll find my thoughts on the topic – hope you enjoy
Hunting for Ethical Innovation in the Adventures of Rick and Morty, Gikii 2017
“Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”
Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty, Episode 6, Season 1
Who are Rick and Morty?
Adult Swim’s cult sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty is not only entertaining to watch but gives us many occasions to question the nature of scientific innovation. Rick Sanchez, a nihilistic, archetypal mad-scientist, co-opts his naive, shy, reluctant grandson, Morty Smith, into a multitude of adventures across space and time. Despite being the ‘smartest man in the multiverse’ many of his inventions give pause for ethical reflection. Rick is why the RRI agenda exists…his work wouldn’t get through (m)any ethics boards.
Sampling Rick’s Inventions
In “Anatomy Park” (see the clip here) we see fruits of Rick’s biological engineering efforts when Morty is sent in to fix problems with his newly finished microscopic theme park built inside a homeless man. It features dangerous virus exhibits and rollercoasters that flirt with trademark infringement like “Spleen Mountain” and “Pirates of the Pancreas”. Some ethical concerns in this episode include:
Similarly, in “Lawnmower Dog” (see the clip here) Rick creates a headset that increases the family dog’s intelligence to stop him urinating on the carpet. However, Snuffles soon becomes self-aware, forming an army of cyborg dogs that eventually take over the world. Ethical issues here include:
Responsible Research and Innovation
As we can see, Rick’s actions are often rather ethically questionable but Morty is there to correct for his moral bankruptcy. Back in this reality, there has been a movement to introduce greater responsibility into scientific innovation. Multiple frameworks have been drafted that eschew the need for greater stewardship of the future, by thinking about the social, ethical and legal implications of today’s inventions. These include: value sensitive design; RRI; Real-Time Technology Assessment; anticipatory governance; Privacy/Surveillance/ethical/social impact assessments; computer and engineering ethics. Through structured reflection, scientists/researchers need to establish and forecast risks, put in place safeguards and mitigating measures to make science and innovation, as an institution, more societally conscious. Rick clearly missed this memo…
Throughout the series, his inventions challenge foundations of ethical science and design, and in this Gikii paper, we narrow down onto four in more detail, namely a vole DNA based love potion; a ‘Meeseek’ personal assistant box; an AI defence system and the ‘Microverse’ spaceship battery.
Invention 1: Microverse Spaceship Battery (clip here)
In the episode “The Ricks Must be Crazy”, we discover Rick has created an entire universe (Microverse) that acts as a battery to power his spaceship. Inhabitants of this universe are required to create power by stomping on power generation boxes. When the ship breaks down, Rick and Morty enter the battery (posing as ‘aliens) to discover a local scientist has created their own ‘Miniverse’ in the ‘Microverse’, to generate power using the same ‘universe in a box’ process. Delving down one level further, the ‘teeniverse’ within the ‘miniverse’ is trying to do the same again. Each universe unaware they exist purely to power Rick’s spaceship and charge his mobile phone. Upon discovery, revolt and destruction ensue.
Ethical Issues (mainly around the values in the design)
Invention 2: Keep Summer Safe (clip here)
Rick’s granddaughter/Morty’s sister, Summer, is left behind in the ship with an onboard AI instructed by Rick to “Keep Summer Safe”. The ship AI takes increasingly disturbing approaches to satisfy this simple command. Laser-based violence targeted at curious passers-and psychological tactics towards local police are two examples. As Summer becomes more shocked, she puts greater limitations on what the AI can do, leading to more elaborate responses to keep here safe. This culminates in the ship brokering a peace treaty between warring human and spider population on this planet.
Invention 3: Meeseek Personal Assistant Box (clip here)
Invention 4: Vole Potion
In the episode “Rick Potion #9”, Rick creates a love potion made from vole DNA (furry rodents who mate for life) for Morty to take to his prom in the hopes of winning over his high school crush. It works, but the effects of the potion are spread by coming into contact with those who have the flu. Soon affection for Morty has spread to the entire town, and then the whole world. Such global love for Morty leads to jealousy and danger to his safety. Rick cooks up an antidote potion based on praying mantis DNA (among other things) but, predictably, this only makes matters worse. Spoiler alert, the episode ends with Rick and Morty hunting for an alternate timeline to live in, as their own one has been destroyed, inhabited by irreversibly mutated Cronenberg-esque monsters…
As we can see, such storylines are rich in moral dilemmas, providing ample opportunity for reflection on the nature of ethical innovation.
 Rick and Morty IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2861424/
 Value Sensitive Design –https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jeroen_Van_den_hoven/publication/45815002_ICT_and_Value_Sensitive_Design/links/5729d34c08ae2efbfdbb8159.pdf ; http://vsdesign.org/publications/pdf/non-scan-vsd-and-information-systems.pdf
 Responsible Research and Innovation –http://www.orbit-rri.org/related-activities/; https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/index.cfm/research/framework/ ; http://www.pacitaproject.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/von-Schomberg-RRI-owenbookChapter.pdf
 Real Time Technology Assessment – http://cspo.org/legacy/library/1104071235F63583901WV_lib_GustonSarewitzRe.pdf
 Anticipatory Governance – http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306312713508669
 Privacy Impact Assessments – RFID PIA https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2050902 ;
ICO PIA code of practice – https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1595/pia-code-of-practice.pdf
DP Impact Assessment – Article 35 General Data Protection Regulation 2016
 Surveillance Impact Assessments – https://academic.oup.com/idpl/article/5/1/40/622960/Developing-and-testing-a-surveillance-impact ;
 Ethical Impact Assessment – http://satoriproject.eu/media/D4.2_Outline_of_an_Ethics_Assessment_Framework.pdf ;
 Social Impact Assessment – https://www.computer.org/csdl/proceedings/spw/2016/3690/00/5829a053.pdf
 Computer Ethics – http://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/spring06/papers/moor.html
 Engineering Ethics – http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/other/engineering-ethics-in-practice-shorter