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Google Assistant and the Ethics of AI

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in Human Interaction

Case Study PDF  | Additional Case Studies


Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly prevalent in our daily activities. In May 2018, Google demonstrated a new AI technology known as “Duplex.” Designed for our growing array of smart devices and specifically for the Google Assistant feature, this system has the ability to sound like a human on the phone while accomplishing tasks like scheduling a hair appointment or making a dinner reservation. Duplex is able to navigate various misunderstandings along the course of a conversation and possesses the ability to acknowledge when the conversation has exceeded its ability to respond. As Duplex gets perfected in phone-based applications and beyond, it will introduce a new array of ethical issues into questions concerning AI in human communication

There are obvious advantages to integrating AI systems into our smart devices. Advocates for human-sounding communicative AI systems such as Duplex argue that these are logical extensions of our urge to make our technologies do more with less effort. In this case, it’s an intelligent program that saves us time by doing mundane tasks such as making diner reservations and calling to inquire about holiday hours at a particular store. If we don’t object to using online reservation systems as a way to speed up a communicative transaction, why would we object to using human-sounding program to do the same thing?

Yet Google’s May 2018 demonstration created an immediate backlash. Many agreed with Zeynep Tufekci’s passionate reaction: “Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… [is] horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing” (Meyer, 2018). What many worried about was the deception involved in the interaction, since only one party (the caller) knew that the call was being made by a program designed to sound like a human. Even though there was no harm to the restaurant and hair salon employees involved in the early demonstration of Duplex, the deception of human-sounding AI was still there. In a more recent test of the Duplex technology, Google responded to critics by including a notice in the call itself: “Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation. I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Uh, can I book a table for Sunday the first” (Bohn, 2018)? Such announcements are added begrudgingly, since it’s highly likely that a significant portion of humans called will hang up once they realize that this is not a “real” human interaction.

While this assuaged some worries, it is notable that the voice accompanying this AI notice was even more human-like than ever. Might this technology be hacked or used without such a warning that the voice one is hearing is AI produced? Furthermore, others worry about the data integration that is enabled when such an AI program as Duplex is employed by a company as far-reaching as Google. Given the bulk of consumer data Google possesses as one of the most popular search engines, critics fear future developments that would allow the Google Assistant to impersonate users at a deeper, more personal level through access to a massive data profile for each user. This is simply a more detailed, personal version of the basic worry about impersonation: “If robots can freely pose as humans the scope for mischief is incredible; ranging from scam calls to automated hoaxes” (Vincent, 2018). While critics differ about whether industry self-regulation or legislation will be the way to address technologies such as Duplex, the basic question remains: do we create more ethical conundrums by making our AI systems sound like humans, or is this another streamlining of our everyday lives that we will simply have to get used to over time?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical values in conflict in this debate over human-sounding AI systems?
  2. Do you think the Duplex AI system is deceptive? Is this use harmful? If it’s one and not the other, does this make it less problematic?
  3. Do the ethical concerns disappear after Google added a verbalized notice that the call was being made by an AI program?
  4. How should companies develop and implement AI systems like Duplex? What limitations should they install in these systems?
  5. Do you envision a day when we no longer assume that human-sounding voices come from a specific living human interacting with us? Does this matter now?

Further Information:

Bohn, Dieter. “Google Duplex really works and testing begins this summer.” The Verge, 27 June 2018. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/27/17508728/google-duplex-assistant-reservations-demo

McMullan, Thomas. “Google Duplex: Google responds to ethical concerns about AI masquerading as humans.” ALPHR, 11 May 2018. Available at: https://www.alphr.com/google/1009290/google-duplex-assistant-io-ai-impersonating-humans

Meyer, David. “Google Should Have Thought About Duplex’s Ethical Issues Before Showing It Off.” Fortune, 11 May 2018. Available at:  https://www.fortune.com/2018/05/11/google-duplex-virtual-assistant-ethical-issues-ai-machine-learning/

Vincent, James. “Google’s AI sounds like a human on the phone — should we be worried?” The Verge, 9 May 2018. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/9/17334658/google-ai-phone-call-assistant-duplex-ethical-social-implications

Authors:

Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
September 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Disrupting Journalism Ethics

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Journalism Ethics amid Irrational Publics: Disrupt and Redesign

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward

Distinguished Lecturer, University of British Columbia
Founding Director, Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin

November 5 (Monday)  ¦  3:00-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


Stephen J. A. WardHow can journalism ethics meet the new challenges to democracy in the era of fake news and real political problems? In this engaging talk, prominent media ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward argues that journalism ethics must be radically rethought to defend democracy against irrational publics, demagogues, and extreme populism. In an age of intolerance and global disinformation, Ward recommends an engaged journalism which is neither neutral nor partisan. He proposes guidelines for covering extremism as part of a “macro-resistance” by society to a toxic public sphere.

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator, living in Canada. He is a Distinguished Lecturer on Ethics at the University of British Columbia, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, and director of the UBC School of Journalism. He was a war correspondent, foreign reporter and newsroom manager for 14 years and has received a lifetime award for service to professional journalism in Canada. He is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming Springer Handbook for Global Mediaward2 Ethics, and was associate editor of the Journal of Media Ethics. Dr. Ward is the author of 9 media ethics books, including two award-winning books, Radical Media Ethics and The Invention of Journalism Ethics. Also he is the author of Global Journalism Ethics, Ethics and the Media, and Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives. His two new books, Disrupting Journalism Ethics and Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age were published in 2018.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information.

Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.

Co-sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism


 

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16 (Tuesday)  ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


The current debate over incivility in the public discourse often leaves out an important component – sometimes the most ethical choice is to speak out, even if some people view your speech as uncivil. The need to be civil at all costs can become a tool of the privileged to silence and symbolically annihilate the voices of those with less power in society, specifically women, people of color, or those from other marginalized groups. Media outlets can perpetuate this silencing by focusing on the “civility” – or lack thereof – of the message, rather than the content. Compounding this problem is the issue that people define what’s uncivil in varied ways – including everything from a raised voice to hate speech. UT Austin Assistant Professor Gina Masullo Chen will draw on potent examples from today’s headlines, including Colin Kaepernick’s “take-a-knee” protest during the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and some politicians’ refusal to speak to their angry constituents. Her argument is not that incivility is good. Rather, she asserts that sometimes the ethical cost of silence is greater than the normative threat to civil discourse from what some may perceive as incivility.

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


 

Ethics in Public Relations

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Ethics in Public Relations

Kathleen Lucente
Founder & President of Red Fan Communications

October 30 ¦ 2:00-3:00PM ¦ BMC 5.208


KLWhat ethical challenges await the public relations professional? Kathleen Lucente, the Founder and President of Red Fan Communications, discusses a range of ethical choices and challenges facing those in the public relations profession, including: ensuring that reporters are fair, just, and honest in their coverage of one’s client, dealing with inappropriate client relations, maintaining honesty and transparency between a client and agency, and the challenges maintaining your client’s reputation while also maintaining yours as an agency in situations of crisis. This talk will be of interest to students wishing to pursue careers in public relations, as well as scholars researching the practices and effects of public relations.

After a successful and award-winning career working for IBM, J.P. Morgan, Ketchum Worldwide and other global brands and agencies, Kathleen Lucente moved to Austin just as the city began its meteoric rise as a hotbed for tech startups and investment. She is the founder and president of Red Fan Communications, an Austin-based public relations firm that has helped countless companies clarify their purpose, tell their unique stories, and establish lasting relationships with clients and customers. She serves on several boards and donates much of her and her staff’s time to local nonprofits that have tangible impact throughout the community, including the Trail of Lights, the ABC Kite Fest, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


 

Moral Psychology and Media

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Feeling Rules, Media Ethics, and the Moral Foundation Dictionary

Dr. Sven Joeckel (University of Erfurt, Germany) & Dr. Leyla Dogruel (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany)

September 19 (Wednesday) ¦ 2:00-3:30PM ¦ CMA 5.136 (LBJ Seminar Room)


What does psychology have to tell us about the impact of media on our emotions and moral judgments? Does media make us better moral agents? In this discussion, two visiting researchers from Germany will speak on how media shapes our “feeling rules” and the connection between moral values and political communication. Attention will also be given to how moral psychology can help us understand the ideological content of media texts.

Dr. Sven Joeckel is Professor for Communication with a focus on children, adolescents and the media at the University of Erfurt, Germany. He received a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Technology, Ilmenau (Germany). Since 2009, he has chaired the M.A. program in Children, Adolescents, and the Media at the University of Erfurt. His research interests are adolescents’ use of media, mobile privacy research as well as the relationship between media use and morality. Dr. Leyla Dogruel is Assistant Professor for Media Systems and Media Performance at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. In 2013, she received her Ph.D. from Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. Her research interests include media innovation theory, online privacy, and media structures.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


 

Media Ethics and Mobile Devices

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


BYOD!  Should We Really Ask New College Grads and Employees to Bring their Own Devices to Work?

Dr. Keri K. Stephens

Associate Professor of Communication Studies
University of Texas at Austin

September 25 ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ BMC 5.208


kksAt first glance it might sound great to get to choose the cell phone and computer you want to use at work.  After all, you might like iPhones and your colleague likes Androids.  But what people overlook is that “bring your own” often means you are also paying for these devices and agreeing to rules that few people ever read.  Come join us for a Media Ethics Talk by Keri K. Stephens, where she will share some of the hidden issues of control that new college graduates, as well as people in many stages of their career, face with BYOD policies.  This talk features research from Stephen’s recently published book, Negotiating Control: Organizations and Mobile Communication (Oxford University Press).

Dr. Keri K. Stephens’ research and teaching interests bring an organizational perspective to understanding how people interact with communication technologies, and she focuses on contexts of crisis, emergency, disaster, workplaces, and healthcare.  She is an Associate Professor in the Organizational and Communication Technology Group in the Department of Communication Studies, a Faculty Fellow with the Center for Health & Social Policy in the LBJ School of Public Policy, and a Faculty Affiliate with the Center for Health Communication.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


 

No Comment

CASE STUDY: Online Comment Sections and Democratic Discourse

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


The online world seems defined by interaction. We converse with known and unknown others on social media sites, blogs, and even at the bottom of stories on news sites. For journalism, this interaction is fairly new. In the early 2000s, only about eight to 30 percent of news sites had comment sections. About 10 years later, that number rose to 85 percent. As of 2010, Pew reported that 32% of Internet users have posted a comment on an online news article (Stroud et al., 2014). Newspapers and news websites realized the value of online comment sections: they can facilitate reader interaction and the sharing of opinions about journalistic content. But having the ability to comment doesn’t necessarily mean that readers will leave constructive or thoughtful comments; sites such as NPR, Popular Science, VICE News, MSN, and the Guardian decided to abandon comment sections altogether. Many cited the hateful, irrelevant, or crude content that so often populates comment sections as the primary reason for eliminating them on a news site.

In 2013, Popular Science got rid of their comment sections due to “trolls and spambots” who overwhelmed those who were actually “committed to fostering intellectual debate.” Some evidence seemed to show that uncivil comments can “skew a reader’s perception” or even change a reader’s mind altogether about the scientific information presented in the article. As Natalie Stroud and co-authors (2014) argue, “instead of being a forum for learning and discovery, comment sections can devolve into a dark cave of name-calling and ad hominin attacks.” Following Popular Science, NPR announced their decision to eliminate comment sections in 2016. They explained that the comment sections attached to their stories were “not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of [their] users” (Montgomery, 2016). Comments could be moderated, but this slows down discourse and increases costs; it also puts a news company in the uncomfortable position of judging and potentially censoring certain opinions. Eliminating comment sections avoids the worries and costs about selecting which comments are worthwhile to post, while avoiding the distractions and harms of uncivil, irrelevant, or hateful posts.

 

Instances such as these evoked both support and condemnation from those interested in creating more vibrant journalistic practices. Some worried that the hateful and uncivil actions of a small percentage of users was dictating the communication opportunities of the majority of news audiences. If the interaction of citizens through reason-based debate and discussion is vital for a democracy’s flourishing, removing the immediate space for such discussion on a specific newsworthy story is seen as problematic. Additionally, some may argue that the ability to put up with or tolerate disagreement—or in the worst case, hateful opinions—is an important skill for democratic citizens living in a community that often has to live with difference and disagreement among its members. Disabling the airing of such strong and controversial views may also discourage this habit in citizens, especially when connected with the pro-democratic institution of journalism.

Other applaud closing down of comment sections that have become a magnet for trolls seeking to provoke others to no real-world end. They point out the harm that giving a platform for extreme and hateful viewpoints creates; clearly, a democracy cannot be totally free of disagreement or hateful views, but should it place a spotlight on these by allowing any and all to comment on the news of the day? If relevant comments get overwhelmed by comments filled with irrelevant, false, or even derogatory content (often stoked by the ability to post anonymously), the real conversational value of comment sections disappears. Beyond this, newspapers worried about what a hostile and vitriolic comment section may do to their image as an objective news source.

The supporters of eliminating comment sections place the hope for civil discourse in other, more controlled, contexts. The cost to democratic community and the information-conveying function of the news is too high. Alternatively, supporters of comment sections see these areas of sometimes-wild discourse as a vital part of democracy. Perhaps one can clean up the comments—by using software that require individuals to log in with social media accounts—but these may raise the cost of risky or unpopular comments too high and stifle speech that would otherwise be uttered if protected by the veil of anonymity. How free should our discussions be on websites that offer us the news we need to be a flourishing democracy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are comment sections integral for the functioning of digital journalism in a democracy? Why or why not?
  2. Is eliminating comment sections the right decision when they become targets of trolling, hateful comments, irrelevant discussion, or personal attacks?
  3. How ought we to react to comments we judge as hateful or vile? Should we respond to them, ignore them, or find a way to get them removed from the discussion section?
  4. What are the ethical obligations of a citizen of a democratic state to others who hold differing views? What are the ethical obligations of news corporations and social media platforms to those who hold unpopular or even hateful views?

Further Information:

Scott Montgomery, “Beyond Comments: Finding Better Ways To Connect With You.” National Public Radio, August 17, 2016. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-extra/2016/08/17/490208179/beyond-comments-finding-better-ways-to-connect-with-you

Suzanne LaBarre, “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.” Popular Science, September 24, 2013. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

Clothilde Goujard, “Why news websites are closing their comments sections.” Medium: Global Editors Network, September 8, 2016. Available at: https://medium.com/global-editors-network/why-news-websites-are-closing-their-comments-sections-ea31139c469d

Maranda Jones, “Why Traditional Comment Sections Won’t Work in 2018.” SquareOffs, March 29, 2018. Available at: https://blog.squareoffs.com/why-traditional-comment-sections-wont-work-in-2018

Natalie Jomini Stroud, Ashley Muddiman, Joshua Scacco, Alex Curry, and Cynthia Peacock, “Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections.” The Engaging News Project, September 10, 2014. Available at: https://mediaengagement.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ENP_Comments_Report.pdf

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 31, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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