Attributions of ethical responsibility by Artificial Intelligence practitioners

Will Orr, Jenny Davis

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Systems based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) are increasingly normalized as part of work, leisure, and governance in contemporary societies. Although ethics in AI has received significant attention, it remains unclear where the burden of responsibility lies. Through twenty-one interviews with AI practitioners in Australia, this research seeks to understand how ethical attributions figure into the professional imagination. As institutionally embedded technical experts, AI practitioners act as a connective tissue linking the range of actors that come in contact with, and have effects upon, AI products and services. Findings highlight that practitioners distribute ethical responsibility across a range of actors and factors, reserving a portion of responsibility for themselves, albeit constrained. Characterized by imbalances of decision-making power and technical expertise, practitioners position themselves as mediators between powerful bodies that set parameters for production; users who engage with products once they leave the proverbial workbench; and AI systems that evolve and develop beyond practitioner control. Distributing responsibility throughout complex sociotechnical networks, practitioners preclude simple attributions of accountability for the social effects of AI. This indicates that AI ethics are not the purview of any singular player but instead, derive from collectivities that require critical guidance and oversight at all stages of conception, production, distribution, and use.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)719-735
    JournalInformation Communication and Society
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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