French university scrutinises ethics of AI research

University of Paris-Saclay will incorporate ethical considerations into research on emerging technologies 

January 19, 2018

A French university has set up a panel to explore the ethical implications of research into new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

Research ethics boards are commonplace for scientists working in biomedicine and psychology. When a study involves humans or animals, a board scrutinises its aims, its proposed research methods and its progress as well as looking at the risks and benefits of the work.

But academics at the University of Paris-Saclay want to take this practice a step further and incorporate ethical considerations into work being done in other parts of the university, such as the engineering and computer science departments.

Its Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity Council will provide a forum for researchers working on emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things, to discuss any ethical conundrums their work throws up.

Sylvie Pommier, director of doctoral research at Paris-Saclay, said that some areas of science were developing in ways that affected society in new and different ways. “We must adapt our advice to protect scientific integrity,” she said.

She told Times Higher Education that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence could create “many problems”.

“An artificial intelligence system is there to take decisions in situations that can be unexpected. It is not something on which you can have a priori ethical control, so you need to make sure that the system will have ethical behaviour,” Professor Pommier said.

The university, she continued, had many researchers exploring smart cities and urban mobility, fields in which a great deal of work touches on issues and problems that have ethical implications.

For example, an automated system that manages train arrivals into a subway to better control the flow of passengers leaving a station, and thus prevent overcrowding, could unintentionally discriminate against people who live on certain train lines that have fallen into disrepair or those who live at the ends of the lines.

The new council will offer scientists advice on how to ensure that their funding proposals reflect any such relevant ethical questions. It will also give opinions on the ethics of the methods and protocols suggested by researchers.

Whether any human subjects of the research are properly informed and give the relevant consents will also be scrutinised. Although engaging with the board will be voluntary, over the next few years the university will transform the council into an institutional review board.

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