computational institutions

As the “AI ethics” debate metastasizes in my newsfeed and scholarly circles, I’m struck by the frustrations of technologists and ethicists who seem to be speaking past each other.

While these tensions play out along disciplinary fault-lines, for example, between technologists and science and technology studies (STS), the economic motivations are more often than not below the surface.

I believe this is to some extent a problem of the nomenclature, which is again the function of the disciplinary rifts involved.

Computer scientists work, generally speaking, on the design and analysis of computational systems. Many see their work as bounded by the demands of the portability and formalizability of technology (see Selbst et al., 2019). That’s their job.

This is endlessly unsatisfying to critics of the social impact of technology. STS scholars will insist on changing the subject to “sociotechnical systems”, a term that means something very general: the assemblage of people and artifacts that are not people. This, fairly, removes focus from the computational system and embeds it in a social environment.

A goal of this kind of work seems to be to hold computational systems, as they are deployed and used socially, accountable. It must be said that once this happens, we are no longer talking about the specialized domain of computer science per se. It is a wonder why STS scholars are so often picking fights with computer scientists, when their true beef seems to be with businesses that use and deploy technology.

The AI Now Institute has attempted to rebrand the problem by discussing “AI Systems” as, roughly, those sociotechnical systems that use AI. This is one the one hand more specific–AI is a particular kind of technology, and perhaps it has particular political consequences. But their analysis of AI systems quickly overflows into sweeping claims about “the technology industry”, and it’s clear that most of their recommendations have little to do with AI, and indeed are trying, once again, to change the subject from discussion of AI as a technology (a computer science research domain) to a broader set of social and political issues that do, in fact, have their own disciplines where they have been researched for years.

The problem, really, is not that any particular conversation is not happening, or is being excluded, or is being shut down. The problem is that the engineering focused conversation about AI-as-a-technology has grown very large and become an awkward synecdoche for the rise of major corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix. As these corporations fund and motivate a lot of research, there’s a question of who is going to get pieces of the big pie of opportunity these companies represent, either in terms of research grants or impact due to regulation, education, etc.

But there are so many aspects of these corporations that are neither addressed by the terms “sociotechnical system”, which is just so broad, and “AI System”, which is as broad and rarely means what you’d think it does (that the system uses AI is incidental if not unnecessary; what matters is that it’s a company operating in a core social domain via primarily technological user interfaces). Neither of these gets at the unit of analysis that’s really of interest.

An alternative: “computational institution”. Computational, in the sense of computational cognitive science and computational social science: it denotes the essential role of theory of computation and statistics in explaining the behavior of the phenomenon being studied. “Institution”, in the sense of institutional economics: the unit is a firm, which is comprised of people, their equipment, and their economic relations, to their suppliers and customers. An economic lens would immediately bring into focus “the data heist” and the “role of machines” that Nissenbaum is concerned are being left to the side.

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