Tom Stoneham

Random musings about data ethics, digital rights, AI, and the digital divide. I am an academic philosopher interested in many things. Having spent most of my career on philosophy of mind, metaphysics and those topics in the early modern period, I now feel the urgency of good political philosophy and applied ethics. I will post links to new entries on Mastodon, though feel free to subscribe or use RSS. If you need to ask, CC-BY-NC-ND. (Why 24601? That is a reference to _Les Miserables_, the story of a failed revolution in which the people did not rise, the intellectuals were massacred, and the state-sponsored cruelty, poverty, and exploitation continued. Not this time!)

Calls for AI regulation vs being an adult

One of the questions I was asked after a talk to a multi-disciplinary audience yesterday was: There was a movement where a party petition to stop or slowdown development of AI temporarily. Can you give us your thought on their position? This refers to the Future of Life Institute open letter in March 2023 calling for a six month pause in 'training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4'. For now I will set aside the question of whether the open letter's focus on existential threats and look...
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The problem of second-order bias

We are all now familiar with problems of bias in various algorithms (now called AIs) and also that what these algorithms are doing is picking up, reflecting, and sometimes amplifying bias in the data, which often reflect biases in society. Might there also not be a similar problem of bias in how we - as a society - think about the uses of AI reflecting existing biases about different types of human knowledge and understanding? There is a dominant narrative that the AI revolution is inevitable...
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The fundamental question of ethics

For millennia philosophers have taken the fundamental ethical question to be: How ought I to live? (Which becomes in a specific situation: What ought I to do?) This question is framed in a way which presupposes that the choices we make determine the life we live, and those lives can be evaluated in terms of happiness/wellbeing/eudaimonia. Thus the fundamental evaluative framework, which undergirds all ethical norms and prescriptions, is one of positive outcomes. There is a conception of an atta...
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Big Tech States and Anarchist Neutrality

Last week I gave a seminar on taking literally the idea that some Big Tech companies can be considered non-territorial states, drawing on ideas I blogged back in November. One key feature of these companies is that they are supra-jurisdictional: they can choose which jurisdiction to be registered in for the various different purposes of registration. One of those purposes is public trading of stocks and my talk followed hot on the heels of Telegram announcing that they were considering an IPO o...
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Is there really an analogy between genAI and the spreadsheet?

The ever-interesting Tim Harford has written a blog post about learning from past game-changing technologies: What the birth of the spreadsheet teaches us about generative AI. Neither he nor I are specialists in the sociology of science and technology, so this feels a bit like two bald men arguing over a comb, but I do think he has missed some really important disanalogies, and by doing so, bought into #AIHype. He concludes: When a tool is ubiquitous, and convenient, we kludge our way through...
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Toy, tool or team member? genAI in a university context

Another abstract. This one for a conference at the University of Zurich on How will AI impact Doctoral Education?. Toy, tool or team member? genAI in a university context: genAI is being rolled out into our lives very quickly by the companies who have invested vast sums in these technologies. Many businesses have bought or developed bespoke systems which generate marginal productivity gains, which are cost-saving at scale. Universities are struggling to catch up, lacking the capital to invest ...
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Transcending AI

Discussion of genAI in my circles, which are largely academia, tends to fall into three camps: Deflating #AIHype Considering ethical and regulatory guardrails Finding positive uses Now, I find 3 very puzzling. It is a new technology, it may be useful, it may not be. Why put all this effort into trying to find good uses? Academia has taken on board and found many good uses, over the years, of other new technologies, including email, the web and social media. In those cases the good uses were...
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Autonomy, Safety, and Regulo-solutionism

This is an abstract for a talk in July at the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Amsterdam. Any suggestions or comments which will help develop the full paper much appreciated! When Stanislav Petrov disobeyed orders on 26 September 1983 he probably saved the human race from mass extinction. For any orders, rules or regulations, there may be such a moment when it is better to disobey than to obey. ...
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Search and Distortion

My brilliant colleague Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott has written a really interesting paper on 'Privacy, Publicity, and the Right to be Forgotten'. She argues that as well as claims for privacy and against defamation, we also have legitimate moral claims against distortion, where distortion is: the presentation of true information about someone 'in a way that suggests it would be appropriate to hold them accountable for it, when it is no longer appropriate to do so' (2). Hannah uses this to gi...
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LLMs, better writing, and cognitive diversity

I have previously commented that it is easy to detect a student using an LLM to generate text in an essay because LLMs write better English: grammatical, with sophisticated syntax and clear stucture. Elon Musk said something similar in his interview with Rishi Sunak. We need to challenge this idea, not because it is false but because it reveals we accept a norm of 'better writing' which perhaps we should reject. One way of seeing this is to note that the literary style of LLMs is that of neurot...
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LLMs in teaching? Why?

The current issue of Nature has a 'Feature', i.e. not a peer reviewed article, called 'ChatGPT enters the classroom'.1 While the feature is well-researched journalism and contains a great deal of interest, it is uncritical at key points. I want to look carefully at this paragraph (p.475): Using LLMs to read and summarize large stretches of text could save students and teachers time and help them to instead focus on discussion and learning. ChatGPT’s ability to lucidly discuss nearly any topic ...
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Countries and Companies Part 1

At the AI Fringe last week, Peter Kyle MP noted that SpaceX had sent more into space, by weight, last year than 'any other country'. It was a slip of the tongue, but a revealing one. The day before Gina Neff had asked whether Big Tech companies were 'quasi-states'. How different would the AI Summit - and the Sunak-Musk love-in - have been of we took this thought seriously? In this post I examine the plausibility of the claim. In Part 2 I look at the consequences. What is a state? I have alway...
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Notes on netiquette for teamwork

I am teaching a problem-based learning course at the moment which involves the students working as a multi-disciplinary team to address a specific task. My role in the role play scenario is as a critical friend. As well as being multi-disciplinary, the students have very different prior experience, so helping them create an effective team dynamic has been really interesting. As critical friend, I am on all their group chats, but I don't intervene directly At the end of last week, some tensions...
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Employers, personal contact data, and informed consent

Under what circumstances might an employer need to know your personal mobile phone number? In full recognition that there is a wide range of very different cases out there, from employers who provide not only IT systems but also mobile phones to those who rely entirely on personal devices and commercial (but usually free) platforms, I want to focus on the increasingly common case where the employer provides email (and maybe some other systems) but not mobile phones. I am also going to make ano...
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Regulation and Consumption

I sent the following to BBC TechLife - with a tl;dr audio version - but on the assumption they won't use it, I thought it worth posting here as well. "My name is Tom Stoneham and I am an academic working on Data Privacy, Digital Rights and Responsible AI. There has been a lot of discussion recently about regulation of AI and biometric surveillance like facial recognition. I do not want to stop that drive for regulation, but I think it is important to recognise that it is necessary but not suff...
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Biometrics, traces, and surveillance

Fingerprints Fingerprints, and handprints more generally, were first used by Sir William Herschel, an administrator in the Indian Civil Service, in the 1850s in order to provide a more robust form of identity verification. At first this was an addition to a signature on a contract because he thought signatures too deniable. Later he used them to identify pensioners collecting benefits and criminals serving punishments. The realisation that our passage through the world leaves traces of these d...
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Public posts, Privacy and Ownership

Like many people interested in data ethics, I feel a deep disquiet about data-scraping of public social media posts. I used to think that I could explain this by arguing for a presumed default copyright status drawn from the intentions of social media users. TL;DR this is probably CC-BY-NC-ND, with classes of exemptions to ND (e.g. if someone makes a joke they are generally happy for it to become a meme, but if they say something about themselves, ND holds) and BY (e.g. if researchers are look...
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The Privacy Paradox of Attendance Monitoring

I don't know when educational institutions began taking 'registers' to record which students were attending class - and which not - but I suspect it is a very ancient practice. Why do they do it? Well, in many cases there is a requirement of attendance and consequent sanctions for non-attendance. In schools, this may be a requirement imposed by the state. Just today there was a UK news headline: 'Headteachers should pick up absent pupils from home, says education secretary'. There are clearly...
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AI assisted plagiarism in the humanities

Like many universities, during this summer assessment season we have had a number of students using AI generated text in their essays in ways which constitute academic misconduct under our existing rules. In my discipline, and I believe in other humanities disciplines, these have been pretty easy to spot. Of course, it is possible that we missed at least as many as we caught, but when I think about why they were so easy to spot, I am inclined to think we are pretty reliable. There are some real...
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I'm not boring you, am I?: Read Receipts and Intrusive Speech

Synchronous forms of communication - from speaking to someone in earshot (or signing in 'eyeshot') to telephone and video calls - have a power structure missing from asynchronous forms of communication. They restrict when the audience must (i) attend to the content of the communication and (ii) make any appropriate response. By engaging in a synchronous form of communication, the speaker is attempting to restrict the autonomy of the hearer, attempting to make them do something - to listen and re...
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Privacy, Account Recovery, and Authentication

Suppose you are designing a private messaging app and your 'target market' wants the ability to recover their account, should they lose or upgrade their phone. The obvious ways of doing this (I would be interested if there were some unobvious ways!)1 all require the user to provide three things: An account identifier An authorisation token Some kind of decryption key (Depending what is kept on the servers and what level of recovery you want to give your users, 3 may not be needed.) Now, th...
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(Super)intelligence and power

There is a lot of discussion about superintelligent AI and existential threats to humanity at the moment, and calls for regulation. Now I don't want to suggest that there shouldn't be some form of precautionary regulation in this space, however hard it is to imagine an effective global policing of a technology which is harder to detect than nuclear weapon manufacture. Nor do I want to comment on why regulation may in fact be counter-productive, since it doesn't change the motivations of bad act...
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Rationalisation, algorithmic transparency and the "Space of Reasons"

Choice Blindness For a long time I have accepted the widely held view that choice blindness experiments show that much post hoc rationalisation is actually confabulation. I think that was a mistake and understanding why it was a mistake, in particular understanding why it was based on a misunderstanding about the nature of rationalisation, will help us avoid making a much worse mistake with respect to calls for algorithmic transparency and accountability. In choice blindness experiments subje...
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"Here's my number, so call me, maybe": Why your Contacts list is an ethical issue

Around July or August 1986 I took the Tube to Covent Garden and went to a small, specialist stationery shop on Henrietta Street to buy a Filofax. It was cutting edge personal information technology at the time and it lasted me a long time, until I could afford a Psion 3a in 1994, the first of a long series of 'Personal Digital Assistants' or PDAs that I have owned. Thanks to the magic of .csv, I was able to export contacts across all of them and eventually to my smartphones. I built a very large...
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Facial 'recognition', accuracy and bad behaviour

For me, probably the most haunting scene in Coded Bias was the detention on the street of a 14-year old boy. The misuse of state power is shocking when it is applied to a child. One cannot watch that clip without thinking that those officers are just bad human beings. The only justification for treating a child like that would be if they had witnessed something which made them think the 'suspect' was a risk to other people. Which clearly wasn't the case with that young lad. Unfortunately a lot...
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AI's Ethics Overdraft

Most of what passes for AI is machine learning trained on massive data sets. It is that data which has enabled the dramatic advances we see with generative AI like DALL-E and ChatGPT, but also systems from facial recognition to self-driving vehicles. The data has been collected over the past 15+ years from the internet, which is undoubtedly the largest repository of machine-readable data anyone has ever 'assembled'. In particular, the advent of Web 2.0 and the exponential increase in social med...
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An inspirational quotation

Short quotations are more about words than thoughts. Interesting, complex, nuanced thoughts cannot be expressed in a few words and rarely a single sentence. As the propagandists and dystopians (Huxley, Orwell) of the 1930s and 1940s knew so well, political slogans and soundbites are earworms which aim to prevent critique and debate. Which is a roundabout way of explaining why my current favourite inspirational quotation is so long. "To me, what is so radical and genuinely enjoyable about orga...
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How to Spot a Fascist

It seemed a good idea this weekend to remind myself of Umberto Eco's excellent essay 'Ur-Fascism' in How to Spot a Fascist. After some interesting reflections on his own childhood experiences during WW2 and some remarks distinguishing fascism in general from the systematic ideologies of Nazism and Diamat, he identifies 14 distinguishing marks of Ur-Fascism. Theoretically, he claims that 'Fascism' is a family-resemblance term as identified by Wittgenstein, where there is no common feature share...
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Data-scraping, ethics, and copyright

Public social media posts provide a vast and rich source of data for research and commercial purposes. Posts are date and time stamped, usually geo-located, have an authorial identifier (this could be real name or not, but it is an identity which has data value even in the few cases it cannot be connected to other identities), and usually rich information about readers and their reactions. It is hard for researchers and developers to resist this treasure trove. Who owns the copyright of this ma...
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