"Developing a Philosophy of 'Responsibility' for the Information Society"
Current positions: Principal Investigator of the HITE project "Consideration on the concept of "responsibility" between autonomous machines and citizenries", Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Toyo University. Positions at time of interview: Principal Investigator of the HITE project planning study "Consideration and suggestion on the concept of "responsibility" in the sophisticated information society", Full-Time Lecturer, Faculty of Teacher Education, Shumei University, specializing in Philosophy
In today's world, ethical issues involving information technology continue to surface in areas such as automatic driving using artificial intelligence (AI). The philosophers and humanities scholars who study humanity and society have begun to search for answers to the as yet unsolved problems of modern society. Dr. Kazuya Matsuura, an expert in Greek natural philosophy, has initiated a project which attempts to clarify the concept of "responsibility". What is the nature of this project?
Dr. Matsuura, we've heard you are an expert in Greek philosophy. Can you tell more specific about your research?
My specialty is Greek philosophy--the natural philosophy of Aristotle in particular. Aristotle thought the sublunary world is made up of 4 elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Of course, we cannot apply the natural philosophy of Aristotle, the "science" of his time, to modern science without modification. However, I believe the trial-and-error intellectual struggles of Greek natural philosophers and their process of thought have value even for the present day. This is because we have inherited that process and its results as our "way of thinking ".
If we simply read the writings of past philosophers, we cannot determine how far the content is original to the author, and whether the author is reusing ideas of his philosophical predecessors, or reflecting the era in which he lived. My research aims to highlight the features of the "science" born in ancient Greece by unravelling organic relationships in the historical background of each philosopher. If we can successfully describe these characteristic features, I think that re-examining the roots of modern scientific thinking will provide hints of new possibilities.
Thinking about "responsibility" based on ideas and culture
Why did you submit a proposal to HITE with the theme "consideration and suggestion on the concept of responsibility in the sophisticated information society"?
As developments such as automatic driving using AI have become technically feasible, new ethical problems have come to the fore--such as judgment in case of an emergency, and attribution of responsibility. For example, if a self-driving car causes a traffic accident, who is responsible? The developer? The user? Or the AI itself?
Such problems may, of course, be approached based on the theory of responsibility in political theory or the legal system. But perhaps there is another approach--the viewpoint of the ethics--according to which the aim is greater human happiness. How can disputes be settled when new technology is implemented in society, and that technology causes some harm? Perhaps we can find concepts or a balance to ensure optimal peace of mind for both developers and users.
When I heard about the call for grant proposals by HITE, I felt that beyond the problem of how to establish laws and ethical codes for academic societies, there is a deeper issue, i.e., how to position information technology within the culture of society. If my feeling is correct, then the humanities scholars who preserve and reproduce culture should actively participate in this project. We philosophers will need to act as a bridge between experts and citizens while offering new ways of thinking about the problems people will face in connection with technology. To achieve that, I proposed a research project with the theme of "consideration and suggestion on the concept of responsibility in the sophisticated information society".
Why did you focus on the issue of "responsibility"?
It is a profound question in the humanities how the word and concept of "responsibility" came into being and has been understood by people. For example, there is no word in Greek directly equivalent to "responsibility". The closest word is "aitia ", which is translated as "cause", although some scholars today translate it as "explanatory factor". If this translation is valid, the concept of "aitia" and our current notion of "responsibility" both share the concept of "explanation", and include the premise that to say a person is "aitios" or "aitia" means that he or she can explain the reason for an event or his or her judgement. In contemporary Japan, the term "accountability" (responsibility to explain) is often used, and we say "the responsible person must provide an explanation in case of an emergency". That is, we use the term "responsibility" interchangeably with "accountability", as the Greeks did.
However, according to the experts in Indian philosophy participating in our project, there is no word corresponding to "responsibility" in Indian philosophy. Their dominant idea is that whatever happens in the world, it is determined by "karma" from our previous life. In addition, "responsibility" in Japanese has quite diverse elements. As I mentioned, there is some overlap with the English word "responsibility", but Japanese people also have a samurai-like "responsibility" culture of throwing away their life for loyalty. It seems to me that the concept "responsibility" contains a mixture of many elements since the media often refers to "joint responsibility" and "individual responsibility".
The reason why our project focuses on "responsibility" is this: we believe that to connect various social concepts with information technology, a good approach is to estimate the value of information technology based on the concept of "responsibility", which is polysemous but indispensable for our society. In other words, breaking down and analyzing the diversity latent in the concept of responsibility seems to be one approach for smoothly introducing future information technology into society.
Humanities in the future, connecting to society
What approach will you adopt for this project?
First, to develop an initial understanding of the concept of responsibility, we would like to collect cases in which someone "blames" someone else from various sources, such as law, economics, education, philosophy and the literature of the past. Then, we will abstract away specific background details such as culture and history, extract the concepts pertaining to "blaming others" and "responsibility", and categorize actual cases of appropriate conditioning.
Furthermore, in order to identify the ethical issues which experts in information technology have been facing, and explore potential applications of the responsibility concepts classified in this research, we have invited experts in information technology to our project. Through these interactions, we will deepen our understanding of information technology by, for example, holding public discussions on themes such as "intelligence and machinery".
What is your vision for future activities?
Great philosophers have brought new ways of thinking into the world, and opened up pathways for new thinking in society. Aristotle studied at a school called the Academy, established by Plato, and among the activities at this school, the philosophers helped to solve problems in the polis at the time. I would like to make efforts to play the same role in my generation, and exploit our knowledge to solve social problems. I believe HITE's efforts will provide a forum for proposing--to the community of researchers--practical examples of using knowledge from the humanities in society.
We would also like to contribute to moral education in elementary, junior high and high schools. The children who will take charge of society in the future need flexible moral education to manage a new society with information technology. If we appropriately incorporate the topic of machine accidents--e.g., what we do when an automatically-driven vehicle has an accident or a robot hurts a person--into moral education, children may develop knowledge to better relate to information technology.
I believe that if everyone is capable of talking about information technology, then information technology will "adapt" to our society. It is probably our role to create a foundation on which people from diverse backgrounds can pursue mutual understanding.
Date of interview:January 31, 2016
This interview has been printed in our Program Introduction booklet Vol.01. If you would like to check the other articles please click the link below.
Human Information Technology Ecosystem (HITE) Program Introduction booklet - Vol.01 Vol.02