Pragmatism for a Digital Society: The (In)Significance of Artificial Intelligence and Neural Technology

In Orsolya Friedrich, Andreas Wolkenstein, Christoph Bublitz, Ralf J. Jox & Eric Racine (eds.), Clinical Neurotechnology meets Artificial Intelligence. Springer. pp. 81-100 (2021)


Headlines in 2019 are inundated with claims about the “digital society,” making sweeping assertions of societal benefits and dangers caused by a range of technologies. This situation would seem an ideal motivation for ethics research, and indeed much research on this topic is published, with more every day. However, ethics researchers may feel a sense of déjà vu, as they recall decades of other heavily promoted technological platforms, from genomics and nanotechnology to machine learning. How should ethics researchers respond to the waves of rhetoric and accompanying academic and policy-oriented research? What makes the digital society significant for ethics research? In this paper, we consider two examples of digital technologies (artificial intelligence and neural technologies), showing the pattern of societal and academic resources dedicated to them. This pattern, we argue, reveals the jointly sociological and ethical character of significance attributed to emerging technologies. By attending to insights from pragmatism and science and technology studies, ethics researchers can better understand how these features of significance affect their work and adjust their methods accordingly. In short, we argue that the significance driving ethics research should be grounded in public engagement, critical analysis of technology’s “vanguard visions,” and in a personal attitude of reflexivity.

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