In this episode, guests Svenja O'Donnell and Shannon Vallor discuss data biases, the danger of apathy, saucepan-enabled smuggling and more.
Svenja is a writer, journalist, commentator and freelance adviser on Brexit, and UK and EU Politics. She previously worked as a foreign, economics and politics correspondent at Bloomberg News and Businessweek. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including the Financial Times, Sunday Times and Independent. She was awarded the Washington National Press Club Breaking News Prize in 2017 for her coverage of the Brexit referendum and her first book, ‘Inge’s War: A Story of Family, Secrets and Survival under Hitler’ was published in August 2020.
Shannon is the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), and Professor in Philosophy.
Prior to joining the University, Shannon was a Visiting Researcher and AI Ethicist at Google. Her research explores how new technologies, especially AI, robotics, and data science, reshape human moral character, habits, and practices. Her first book, ‘Technology and Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting’ was published in 2016, and she is currently working on ‘The AI Mirror: Rebuilding Humanity in an Age of Machine Thinking’.
Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.
Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/sharing-things-podcast
Welcome to Sharing things, the podcast that takes a closer look at the people who make up our University of Edinburgh community. Each episode starts with two invited guests and an object, which can be something personal, treasured or significant. It's something that unlocks a story and starts a conversation. We take it from there. I'm Richenda, your new host, conversational guide and a final year medical student. Today, as with all this season's recordings, I'm sat at my kitchen table in central Edinburgh. In this episode, I've invited along for a chat journalist and author Svenja O'Donnell and Shannon Vallor, who is Edinburgh Futures Institute Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence. [Theme music]
Welcome to Sharing things, and today I have Shannon and Svenja with me, we'll just start off with asking, whereabouts as you guys are calling in from?
This is Shannon, I'm calling in from Murrayfield, which is where my husband and I landed after we moved here in late February from the United States, in the middle of a pandemic that was escalating. So we were very fortunate to find a place.
And what about you Svenja?
I am in Northamptonshire, where my partner and I used to have a weekend place which has now become our permanent home, we ended up staying here. And for good just before lockdown, which is quite fortuitous, because it's a hell of a lot nicer than being stuck in a small flat in London during a pandemic. [Theme music]
And my first main question is, what object did you bring along, that was your meaningful, chosen object for the podcast?
So, I brought a glass perfume bottle that my grandfather made, he was a glassblower. And I actually didn't even know this existed until Christmas of last year, which was the last Christmas at home with my family in the US before moving to Scotland. And my aunt had this in her possession after my grandfather passed away in 2001. And so this was her Christmas gift to me, as I was leaving for Scotland with a little piece of my grandfather and his work. It was one of those moments where I just collapsed into a full on ugly cry. And I'm not a big crier, but this was, this was something that really meant a lot to me to carry this to Scotland and remember him with, so I keep it very close to me.
Do you keep it on display? Or do you use it?
Actually, you know, since we moved here, we have adopted a cat. And I am terrified of leaving it, if you know how cats are, anywhere, anywhere unprotected because the cat will almost certainly find a way to drop it to the floor. So at the moment, it's not on display, but I might have to figure out a way to put it on display safely
Behind glass would be my recommendation as a former cat owner. [Laughs]
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs]
How did you feel getting something that had been made by a member of your family, passed down, was important it was made?
Absolutely. As a child, I was familiar with my grandfather's little workshop. He cut gems, and he didn't have a full glassblowing setup at home. But he did talk a lot about the kind of work that he did. And one of the reasons that it was important to me is because my grandfather was someone who always aspired to higher education, was fascinated with science, had a lot to do with my own intellectual curiosity as a child, my interest in science. And he worked at UC Berkeley as a scientific glassblower in the radiation laboratory and the physics labs. And so, one of the things that he always wanted was for me to go to college because I was actually the first person in my family to go to college. So when I graduated in 2001, with my PhD, that was just about four months before he passed away, and it meant a lot for me to be able to realise some of the aspirations that, as a working class man, he was really blocked from following his interests and pursuing an academic career. And so this, this piece, because it's connected to the work he did at the University, it's a reflection of his artistic skills, but also his technical skills. It carries a lot of meaning for me to kind of bring that to a new phase of my life in academia.
Yeah, how did it feel being the first person going into higher education? Does that feel like it's still a big step?
Yeah. You know, that's a long, complicated story. And sometimes, I think I was just moving so quickly, from choice to choice, as I kind of made my path into academia, that I didn't reflect very much at the time on what it meant. But when I became an academic, and especially when I got tenure, and started mentoring other faculty, especially other first generation faculty and students, I really began to kind of reflect more fully on how significant the transition was. I felt a little bit of it in graduate school, because I was the only person in graduate school who hadn't had a fairly, kind of, expected transition through higher education. I actually went to community college. Because I, my family's financial resources weren't sufficient to pay the contribution towards higher education that I would have needed to go to the universities that I was accepted to. So and I didn't apply for scholarships, because I, no one in my family knew where scholarships existed or how to apply and it was one of those things where I made my way through academia through a very unusual path. I worked full time for the first four years at community college, which is normally a two year degree, but it took me four years because I was working full time, because I had to pay my own way. And then I transferred to a four year university for my last two years of the bachelor's degree, and then transition to graduate school, where for the first time I was being paid to be a student, there was a stipend, and I had tuition remission. And I didn't need to work, I could just be a student full time. I had never done that since high school, actually, since I was 15. And I was going to school with a lot of my peers who were, you know, really overwhelmed with the workload of graduate school, which it is overwhelming. But for me, it was the first time I was actually able to kind of breathe and concentrate and use my full potential directed towards my studies and not be trying to just kind of get by. And I didn't realise at the time, you know, how fortunate I was to have made it to that that position from where I was, but I'm, it has made me someone who's very interested in bringing more equity into higher education. And supporting students, non-traditional students, or students who face greater obstacles,
Because of your experiences, you're then trying to make experiences better for future students, because I think sometimes people don't bring other people up behind them.
It's easy to get focused on just surviving, especially if you're in that mode of always feeling like you just barely got where you are. It's very easy to think that you don't have the time or the resources or the energy to give back. But it's really important, it's really important to remember to do and actually it makes me remember why I love what I do. [Theme music]
And then Svenja, can I ask, what object did you bring along as well?
Just listening to sound makes me feel like the ultimate procrastinator, you do you put me to shame. I've brought my little bust of Lenin, who I bought years ago when I worked as a foreign correspondent in Russia, and he has sat on my desk ever since. And now Russia has a sort of weird kind of rule that you can't take pre-war, pre Second World War artefacts out of the country, so I had to smuggle him out when I moved back inside a saucepan. But he made it, and it's kind of a permanent reminder of I think, you know, where I've lived where I've been, I was a foreign correspondent for many years and also to have a connection to Russia, which I write about in my first book. My family were from Königsberg, which is now called Kaliningrad, and is this weird little Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. So, lots to think about. In one little statue.
Yeah, there's a lot tied up there. And how did you come across it? How did it come into your life?
Oh, in a flea market in a kind of, I was working on a story in a Russian provincial town. And I love markets generally. It is the bane of my partner's life, because he thinks I'm a hoarder. So I came across it. I came across it there.
And then why was it you had to smuggle out? So why did it mean so much to you?
Well, it's kind of, I've always had a, you know, I was one of these people who moved to Russia with a real enthusiasm for kind of, not communism as an ideology, but as all the architecture, and the art and iconography that came with it, some of the early stuff is really cool and really interesting. And I think, you know, I'm someone who writes a lot about extremist ideologies, and where they go wrong. And Lenin is the ultimate symbol of that, because obviously, Leninism in its purity is, you know, a pretty high ideal to aspire to, but obviously, he fell to the, he was the first victim of communism as an ideology going very wrong.
I'm curious. So how long were you in Russia?
I was in Russia for about three years? Yeah.
So what is the sort of attitude of Russians today toward that particular history, and that, and that kind of idealism, has all of that really been washed away in the sort of cynicism of what has come since? Or...
I think the interesting thing about Russians, and especially those of the older generation, is that many of these people, you know, had a sort of very set path in life. You know, the educational standards under communism were very high. That was one of its achievements, really. So you know, people, people were generally educated at a high level, but obviously, their path was sort of pre-programmed and set. And that had many disadvantages. But one advantage it did have is that, you kind of had a job for life. And so to give you a good example, you know, the doorman of the building, I worked for Bloomberg, and we had an office within a, in a sort of office block, near Red Square. And he had a PhD in nuclear physics. But obviously, when Iron Curtain came down, the transition that was very abrupt, I think there was a certain failure in trying to prepare the wider population for it. And so you do have Russians of a certain generation, you know, I'd say people who are sort of aged 50, 60 and above, to look back on communism with a certain nostalgia because, like everything you forget, the fact that, you know, there was no free thinking, that there was a real spirit of informing on other people. And you remember, the stability, because Russia, of course, went through, especially in the 90s, a period of extreme instability, where crime syndicates dictated everything. I mean, now the corruption has just moved in inside governments so [laughs] [unintelligible] bit different. But in terms of, but there is a certain, I mean Russians are beautifully cynical about pretty much everything. I remember a very good friend and colleague of mine, [unintelligible], who, whenever I asked, you know, the fact that I really wanted to go to a former Soviet seaside resort... [laughs] spent a lifetime trying to get away from that kind of thing, but you know, enjoyed the three day train journey to get there. So there's a mix, but it's definitely a complicated, complicated relationship, because there hasn't been a real reckoning yet, I think, with the past.
Yeah, as an American expat sort of watching what's happening in my home country right now, and the very real prospect of it sliding into a non-recoverable form of corruption and authoritarianism and kleptocracy, it's really, it makes you look at the history of Russia and countries who underwent sort of similar cataclysmic changes in the political ideology through a different lens.
I completely see what you what you mean, because I, you know, before I went freelance to write my book, I was a political correspondent in the UK, and I covered Brexit. And then I spent a year researching Nazi Germany for [unintelligible]. And you do look at you know, I find, you know, I spent, you know, a weird amount of hours listening to Goebbels and Göring. And, and I found the rhetoric doesn't change, right, the rhetoric of populism has tried and tested tropes, which resurface every time. The one thing I would say, Russia went from, you know, to kind of tear in system to avoid and back to, you know, another form of authoritarian government. You know, looking at Germany, you can go through a terrible blip for, in their case, 12 years, and still managed to rebuild. So I think a country like the US, which has, I know, checks and balances, which are being eroded, but it has these checks and balances nonetheless. So I wouldn't entirely despair for the future, because Russia didn't ever have them--
Never had that model.
No. And I think that's the big difference. [Theme music]
I mean, your books kind of written about your family history, how does it feel seeing stuff like that rise up again, does that feel scary to you? Or are you kind of...
Yeah, it absolutely does. I think one of the central tendency of my book was, you know, my family were Germans in East Russia, who were not singled out for persecution, there are good people, but there were, you know, what I like to call people in the middle. So they weren't specifically heroic, nor were they evil. And they simply tried to survive and so did not stick their heads above the parapet. And I think what this is highlighted for me is two things. First off, myself, what would I have done in the same situation, and also, how dangerous apathy can be, 'cause you think you know, the world and you think you understand its rules. But these can change really frighteningly fast. And I think, the question I'm asking myself, now is, you know, am I doing enough to speak out? You know, when have things got so far that you have to say something, because what history has taught us is that it, you know, is that nothing is ever set in stone. And so when change comes, it often creeps up on you, and then when you realise it's there it's too late.
Yeah so that's something that you find in your work Shannon, because I know you look a lot into ethics, and philosophy, and a lot of it is on human nature, do you ponder the same sort of questions?
Absolutely. So my area of research is emerging technology, ethics, and especially ethics of artificial intelligence, robotics, new media, data science, and so on. And one of the things that if you work in any domain of applied ethics, where you're not just looking at ethics as a theory, but you're actually looking about how it's lived, in the choices that people make, in the ways that communities are structured, and the values that they defend, and so forth. You know, one of the perennial questions in philosophy is the extent to which notions of the good or the right, or the virtuous are universal and timeless, versus culturally or historically determined, infinitely plastic and constructed according to rules that can change at any time. And my view is that the truth is somewhere in the middle, in that there are these sort of enduring features of what it is to be a human animal, and what kinds of things human animals need in order to flourish, that keep our kind of moral world over time, and across various geographic and cultural boundaries, it's still having a certain amount of coherence. And empirical studies have found that out, but if you go and do studies of a broad range of cultures, there's actually a surprising amount of crossover and coherence in the in the kinds of virtues that people in different communities talk about. And yet there's a great deal of variety in difference, in how over time and across cultural and historical boundaries, people express those moral commitments and the kinds of actions that they valorise or the kinds of hierarchies that they that they defend. So at the very high abstract level, there are these sort of deep commonalities. But in practice, moral life becomes so varied that it can be difficult to find something to hold on to as an anchor. One of the interesting things that struck me very deeply was the first time I travelled abroad was to a conference in Hungary.
Hmm, yeah. Let's talk about the erosion of rule of law, yeah.
Exactly. And on the train, I was sitting on the train to this town out, kind of in the middle of Hungary, Miskolc. I was on, happened to be seated next to an academic from the UK, who was... who had been born in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain. And so we struck up, we were on the train together for several hours, and we struck up a conversation. And she was talking to me about how quickly the moral community collapsed. And how quickly neighbours for example, turned, and how easily they were manipulated into informing on each other, and not even informing on each other with any kind of political sincerity or loyalty. Rather, it would be this case that if you liked your neighbour's car, and your neighbour was getting on your nerves, because of you know, some dispute about your garden, or whatever, or a fight between your families, all you had to do was pick up the phone and report them for, you know, suspicious political activities. And in the morning, you might find that that family is gone. And you don't know where, but maybe their car is still there. And and you no longer have had those troubles to deal with. And she was describing how rapidly the moral fabric unravelled under those kinds of incentives. And it was really, really it's a kind of terrifying realisation that our bonds can be so fragile,
I tend to say this, because I do a lot of work in Berlin, and have a dear friend who grew up in East Germany. And he was 14 when the wall came down. And he described it as having lived in the best of both worlds. So you have that, his mother- both his parents are doctors, his mother came from a working class background and was encouraged to study medicine, something that previously if she hadn't been living in East Germany would simply not have happened. At the same time when his older sister was approached by the study, they had to have a family conversation about how she should best project that, because not informing, also had consequences for people. But then, you know, he opened my eyes to something which I think in the West, we don't really think about that, of course, part of the reasons why these societies flourished for so long is that they did bring many advantages. So for example, in a former East Germany, equality for women, even though, okay, things you know, go on behind closed doors, but was written into the Constitution. If you got divorced, you got childcare, you got a flat, you know, you had opportunities that women in the West in Western Germany didn't have in the same way. And so I think it makes it a very complicated balance where there was almost a sort of trade-off with, you know, you give up some of your freedom for kind of, you know, these very visible gratifications. But these are moral trade-offs that you don't realise you've lost until again, it's too late.
So it's quite a sort of... I think East Germany in particular, because it was, you know, a little bit freer than other places, but which had a network of informants that was ten times bigger than under Nazi Germany.
Yeah. And it's interesting to see how various forms of authoritarianism intersect with and are co-shaped by the kind of local culture and history and dreams. And, you know, I've spoken to a number of people also in the People's Republic of China about the kinds of transitions there and you saw similar things, for example, with respect to the elevation of the security and status of women.
And those have very real impacts that I think can be easily dismissed when you focus on on the harms and the corruption. But you also have to think about the sort of, what's behind that and the alternatives that people are familiar with, right?
They're not necessarily moving from a condition of equity and freedom and respect for human rights into this. They're moving from something that was even more exploitative and unfair in some, in some respects. Where there was, you know, very little that one could do to contest abuses of power.
I mean, it's important to say you have to be right, you know, no new authoritarian regime seizes power, on a promise of authoritarianism. It's always done to a promise of employment, law and order, better jobs. You know, giving a voice to those who feel they have been left behind. And this is, you know, we see this at the moment in the United States. We see this in Poland and Hungary. And you know, that to certain extent, it's somewhat ironically, done in Britain. It is quite... it's quite extraordinary. It's the, you know, some of the narrative news is self-contradictory. But, you know, watching the Health Secretary encourage people to clap for the NHS when nurses weren't included in the pay rise. But you know, most most of the [unintelligible] was with people like you on the on the front line. But these, these are always these paradoxes. And it's, you know, I think, once you know, once you get seduced, this alternative reality doesn't catch up to you with the until it is too late to really get yourself out of it as a society.
And I think it-- it reminds me that authoritarianism is, is kind of an opportunistic disease. And it's something that requires a compromised host, right? You need a social fabric, in which people already feel in some way at risk, or uncared for repressed, disenfranchised, there has to be some basic social failing, that authoritarian logic can exploit in order to kind of enter the body of the of the host without the defences going up. So I kind of think of it as a kind of immune system metaphor, right, it has to trick the immune system of the society into letting it begin to take hold. And I think that has, that happened in in the United States. You know, I think earlier than we thought, as you said earlier, by the time you realise it's happened, the virus, if you will, is already... is already taking root and replicating.
What an ordinarily apt metaphor for our time. Isn't it? [Laughs]
Maybe all of us are choosing those metaphors because of--
Because of covid.
Because of the moment. But it does-- you know, I don't think it's an unsuitable metaphor.
No, I think it's perfect. It's frightening, I kind of play a game with some of my friends called 'Apocalypse Bingo'. And it just, every day it's either, you know, the giant rats, taking over Liverpool or they're kind of managing fleas or whatever, yet another kind of apocalyptic mess, is delivered. And you kind of really wonder how... how it's gonna end. [Theme music] As someone who looks at algorithms and robotics, I mean, the A-Level fiasco must be something you'll kind of looking at fairly closely, because it's how do you reconcile the averages with the individuals, right?
And it shows the failures of a kind of technocratic approach to governance, that thinks that you can use technology to somehow glide over the really complex and often intractable social and political dilemmas that they're always with society about notions of fairness and justice and how to distribute the goods of a society and who's protected and who's placed at risk. And I think there's a desire in some technocratic circles - and I certainly saw this in Silicon Valley, and I think some of it has been exploited here - this desire to instead of confronting the difficulty of politics, to try to steer around it or over it using technology. And basically this illusion that technological solutions will deliver somehow, an optimal and unchallengeable result that people will accept because it's objective, because it's quantitative. And of course, it's none of these things. It's based on human generated data that reflects all of our biases, and injustices and often carries them forward. And not only that, but the algorithms as we've seen, in A Level scenario, the algorithms themselves do nothing, it's about how they are applied, used, implemented. And all that human complexity, all those political conflicts and intractable debates come swirling right back in. And the moment you actually try to use an algorithm, in a social space where there are deep issues of fairness and justice, they come back to bite you only you're not prepared, because you thought the algorithm was going to kind of allow you to sail over that chasm. And I think what's frustrating is, you know, anyone could have seen this outcome in advance. And in fact--
Oh indeed, yeah.
If they had accepted more external, you know, advice and critique back in the spring, as it was obvious that this kind of challenge was going to come up, they could have steered through this very difficult challenge much more successfully, and kept far greater confidence in public trust in government, and in the use of technology and algorithms, right. And so what the government has done is by trying to ignore those challenges and evade them, they've actually found themselves more deeply embedded in them, without the confidence of the public that they have the tools to deal with these effectively. And so now you have greater public scepticism, about government, about data and algorithms as tools. And so it's kind of the worst case outcome for everyone. So I think we have to move into a new phase of maturity in our use of technology and recognise that there is no apolitical, technological solution to the challenges of building a fair and just and free society. There's no getting around that work.
But I suppose as well, the power to... the ability in keeping discussion and the ability to contest decisions...
And that's what I mean about, you know, that's the hard part of politics is when someone says, I don't accept this. I want to challenge it.
That's a democracy.
Exactly. And I think a lot of technocracy is trying to replace democracy, you know, with solutions that seem cleaner, and tidier, and more neutral. And they're none of those things. But they're... because they pretend to be they actually end up being less effective than sort of honestly confronting the political choices that we have to make together, and developing this political and moral skills to do that better. And I think that's what, when I think about democracy, and this relates to everything we've been talking about, I think it's not a system, it's a set of techniques or skills - social techniques, for navigating human conflicts and value tensions and needs. And like any skill, if you stop practising it, the skills either degrade or or stagnate. And if the problems get harder, your skill level is not keeping up. And I think one of my concerns is, as we see a kind of algorithmics turn in democratic societies, I think what's happening is we're allowing those skills of sort of dealing with and effectively managing fundamental political and moral conflicts in free societies, we're seeing those skills degrade because we are declining to exercise them and I think people are forgetting what it takes to actually keep a democracy goer.
That was quite a good summarising point for a conversation that's kind of gone past, present, future... full sweep of the political spectrum as well. We'll just conclude with our usual final question which is what one word would you use to summarise the object that you brought along today?
Stern, in my case.
Mine I think is hopeful. My object makes me think about you know, the possibilities that lie in the future and the dreams that haven't been realised but might be realised by future generations. So I hope we we can carry that forward too.
Fab. Well, thank you very much for chatting to me today and for coming along to take part in the podcast.
Thanks Richenda. This was a really, really great conversation and I'm so glad that Svenja and I had a chance to talk.
Yeah, that was great, thank you. And that's a beautiful perfume bottle, don't let it anywhere near your cat Shannon. It's giving me nervous palpitations just thinking about it.
I have the bubble wrap right here. [Laughs]
Yeah, exactly. [All laugh] [Theme music]
Thanks for listening to Sharing things. If you enjoyed our podcast, then please tell your friends, colleagues and neighbours, and it might even be a good excuse for getting in touch with a university mate you haven't talked to in a wee while. If you'd like to listen to more episodes, you can find us on Spotify, iTunes, your favourite podcast platform, and we also have a website. Take care and see you next time.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai