Ethical Things

– The mundane, the insignificant and the ‘smart’ things

When I first saw this project I thought it was a possible answer to our brief on Speculative Design on “Autonomous Weapons Systems”. It is not an actual weapon but it should be considered as one, in terms of the decision making part of it. “Ethical Things” is also an autonomous system speculating on the mundane, the insignificant and the ‘smart’ things  of the future world. On the other hand, it is a very “social” object as it is explained in the following analysis.

Analysing this project according to the “Interaction Design Pyramid” that Nicolas Marechal has designed we are coming in a conclusion that is involved in all four layers of interaction of this pyramid.

The Technological layer on the base of the pyramid can be easily argued as in this project are involved too many different technologies and methods like physical computing and the approach of IoT. [Arduino Yun, Python,Crowdsourcing websites (rapid-workers, jobboy, …), PHP, jQuery].

Going up in the pyramid, this object is Social in the way it is connected to networks like crowdsourcing websites and the fact that is communicating with the users as well as it is supposed to take input from a variety of them and make decisions.

Objects in the Critical layer reveal something new or unexpected about human nature and bring awareness to current issues in political, social, ethical, and technological fields.

Pataphysical objects are often futuristic in the sense that they aim to study or discuss what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics. This project speculates on complex algorithms that start to influence our everyday lives and help us have a more objective view on ethical dilemmas.

ID Pyramid

Created by Simone Rebaudengo & Matthieu Cherubini, Ethical Things is a project that explores the effects of autonomous systems of the future, speculating on how complex algorithms may not only be concerned with decisions we can’t solve but what happens to the mundane and insignificant objects that occupy everyday lives and what their future might be.

If a “smart” coffee machine knows about its user’s heart problems, should it accept giving him a coffee when he requests one? Even with such a banal situation, the level of complexity of such ‘smart’ products cannot accommodate all parties. The system will be designed to take into account certain inputs, to process a ‘certain’ type of information under a ‘certain’ kind of logic.

The team asks how are these “certainties” defined, and by whom? How are these autonomous systems going to be able to solve problems without objective answers? And, moreover, as the nature of ethics is very subjective, how will machines be able to deal with the variety of profiles, beliefs, and cultures?

The project looks at how an object, facing everyday ethical dilemmas, can keep a dose of humanity in its final decision while staying flexible enough to accommodate various ethical beliefs. In attempting to answer this, their “ethical fan” (pictured below) connects to a crowd-sourcing website every time it faces an ethical dilemma. It posts the dilemma it’s facing and awaits the help of one of the “workers”, or mechanical turks, who will tell the fan how to behave. It assures that the decision executed by the system is the fruit of real human moral reasoning. In addition the fan is designed to let the user set various traits (such as religion, degree, sex, and age) as criterion to choose the worker who should respond to the dilemma, in order to assure that a part of the user’s culture and belief system is in line with the worker, or ethical agent.


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