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Research

My research program focuses on ethical issues involving relationships and emerging technologies. I draw on a variety of philosophical traditions, including both Greek and Chinese accounts of character ethics, to inform analyses of these issues. These methodologies help bring together rich accounts of the nature and value of relationships, with the technical and social issues that arise in the face of new technologies. For example, an Aristotelian account of the nature and limits of friendship can shed light on the quality of relationships via social media, while a Confucian account of social support for grief can inform a theory about how to handle digital artifacts after a person’s death.

This program involves a number of topical threads. One involves the ways that interpersonal relationships can be mediated by technologies, and the ethical implications of such mediation. While some accounts focus on the institutional and structural problems presented by current corporate social media options, it is important to understand potential benefits as well, to better inform projects to reform and develop new solutions as well as to avoid destroying valuable aspects of often-controversial systems. To that end, I include both empirical research and narrative testimony in my research, to best capture social media users’ own innovative uses of these technologies, situating them in theoretical frameworks to articulate ideals of relationship as well as to think about how to influence them for the better. Publications in this line of research include the social media chapters of my book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media (2018, Routledge) and research in various stages of development, including “The interpersonal is political: unfriending to promote civic discourse on social media” and “Not ‘Kids these days,” it’s ‘Seniors these days’: Remonstrating with unethical conduct of geriatric social media users”.

A second thread involves the nature of our relationships with proto-social robotics and artificial intelligences, particularly those that, while far from being plausible candidates for meeting standard criteria for moral status such as sentience or consciousness, nevertheless can activate social responses in human beings, often but not always by design. An account of the ethics of engaging with friendly appearances involves taking seriously both their role in our own psychological responses, the hazards of mistakenly attributing personhood to things incapable of meeting the expectations associated with this attribution, and the value of our social responses even in the absence of interpersonal relationships. Publications in this line of research draw on both Aristotelian arguments about counterfeit relationships, and Confucian theories about the moral consideration due to corpses, music, and other non-human but emotionally powerful artifacts. They include the robot portion of my book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media (2018, Routledge) and “Conversation from Beyond the Grave? A Neo‐Confucian Ethics of Chatbots of the Dead”. Projects in progress include “‘How could you even ask that?’ Uncertainty and vulnerability in social robotics”, presented at CEPE 2019, and a co-authored paper, “Neither person nor thing: The promise of an animal model for AI”, presented at MPS 2019.

The third thread involves interdisciplinary collaboration with researchers in fields like computer science and business to address practical integration of ethics in technology. This includes both joint editorship of a special issue of the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society on the topic of “Creating, Changing, and Coalescing Ways of Life with Technology, co-edited with a computer scientist and a researcher in information and communication technology methods and management, as well as ongoing involvement in robotics and wearables research projects at UMD with Arshia Khan in the Computer Science department.

Across these different threads of research, I aim to bring together detailed, context-sensitive, empirically informed assessment of social practices with philosophical frameworks to help us navigate the shifting landscape of technological innovation.