Can Ethics Help Shape Big Data? — Purdue Lectures in Ethics, Policy, and Science


Twenty years ago, when the internet was just beginning to change the way that we live our lives, one would never have guessed the changes and challenges that a more connected world would produce. As smart technologies (i.e. smart phones, smart watches, smart T.V.s, smart refrigerators, etc.) began to “thingify” the internet and entirely infuse it in our everyday lives, we soon became immersed in a world in which everything about our lives was being tracked and recorded. This tracking and recording produced large amounts of data: raw, quantifiable bits of human behavior and existence. The question then became: what can we do with this data? Which fails to consider the pointedly ethical question of: what ought we do with this data?

Recent developments in data science have resulted in what can only be called a revolution in industrial progress. Machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities have allowed researchers, corporations, and governments to collect and analyze large amounts of data gathered from our constant connection and interaction with the internet. Economic markets have been forever changed by these technological capabilities; advertisements now target the individual consumer’s preferences and search history. Companies that use machine learning and A.I. technologies – Google, Facebook, Amazon (to name only a few) – are some of the wealthiest in the world. Machine learning and A.I. capabilities are also paving the way for a healthier world. Healthcare enlists the help of machine learning; algorithms analyze millions of patient charts and CT scans to determine treatments, diagnosis, and outcomes quicker than a physician alone. However, there is a tradeoff for this wealthier and healthier world. Privacy and its intrinsic value are constantly called into question as our personal data is gathered by government or corporate actors and then entered into an algorithm. A weak standard of consent (“I agree to the terms listed above”) allows websites to gather our data without our full informed consent. These issues only brush the surface of the ethical issues surrounding big data.

The use of big data requires moral and ethical scrutiny. Does our data belong to us? Do we have a right to access the data that is collected from us? Are we entitled to some of the profits that are made from our data? Should governments collect our data? Should governments regulate how our data is used and collected?

Dr. Nina Atanasova is a lecturer at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. Dr. Atanasova’s research focuses on the intersection of philosophy, science, and public policy. Her talk will focus on the ethics of big data, with particular attention to what some are calling the fifth industrial revolution – an economic revolution that takes into account the moral and ethical implications of big data.

Location: MJIS 1001

Time: Tuesday, March 10th from 4 PM – 5:30 PM

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